Refugee status hard won for Colombians
Government takes years to grant Colombians refugee protection status.
Some 200,000 people in Venezuela need refugee protection, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but have not been granted the internationally-recognized status by the local government.
Colombia´s refugee crisis is the world´s second-largest, after Sudan. According to that country´s Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement, 70,000 people have died in Colombia´s armed conflict over the past 20 years, the majority of them unarmed civilians. More than 4 million people have suffered from forced displacement within the country, but many have simply disappeared, making the exact number of refugee-seekers elusive.
The UN refugee agency said most who are seeking protection abroad are poor farmers and their families, whose rights have been jeopardized by the military, guerrillas or paramilitaries, thanks to their longtime exclusion from public policies.
"One morning, a boy handed me a piece of paper that some men had given him," said a 32-year-old Colombian woman who was seeking refugee status in Venezuela and asked that her name not be printed. "I opened the paper that said: ´You have 24 hours to leave the village. If not, you will face the consequences. You have shown yourself to be against our revolutionary project.´ That very day, I left. Within hours, my life changed forever."
Crossing to Venezuela
The Colombians who have fled the border must formally seek refugee status from the receiving government, a status that is a different legal process in every country.
Venezuela is one of the few Latin American countries whose constitution outlines conditions for refugee or asylum status.
The 2001 law establishes a three-month period for the National Refugee Commission to decide whether to grant refugee status. Local offices were set up in the border provinces of Zulia, Tachira and Apure to hear the cases.
Some who have applied say the process takes years. The same woman who received the note from the boy said she has been waiting since 2004, but has not yet been granted refugee status from the government, which keeps her from having the paperwork required for employment in Venezuela.
From 2003 to October 2009, Venezuela´s government has received 14,946 requests for refugee protection, 95 percent of them Colombians, according to official figures. But only 2,500 people have been recognized as refugees in Venezuela, while 10,300 cases are still under consideration by the commission, and another 2,146 requests were turned down.
In a telephone interview, Ricardo Rincón, chief of the government commission, said that the delay is normal, taking into account a lower budget because of the global economic crisis and exhaustive evaluations of every case.
"We don´t want criminals entering our territory to look for trouble," he said. "We have to protect national sovereignty."
But various refugee rights organizations along the Colombian-Venezuelan border argue that the government´s slow response is hindering the population from integrating into society and can cause even more poverty since they are prohibited from working or studying.
Quality of life?
Along the border, some families have been waiting for refugee status for at least seven years. A woman, who asked to be identified only as Consuelo for security reasons, said members of Colombia´s National Liberation Army guerrilla group killed her eldest son "because he didn´t want to go with them" and threatened her.
But Consuelo cannot work or access social programs in Venezuela because she lacks refugee status.
According to Rincón, the government will grant basic social services to individuals who say that are seeking refugee status, but this is not the case in practice. Those who have not received a response from the government agency, or not received provisional documents, which can take up to two months to receive, cannot access these services.
Many of the refugees, especially those coming from rural Colombia, are living in poverty in Venezuela, far from their land, relatives and animals. Because of the shock of being violently uprooted from their environment, some do not know how to start over.
Like Consuelo, thousands of Colombians are waiting for a response from the government, but receive only excuses to justify delays. —Latinamerica Press.