How do you count those who fear being counted?
Colombia on Friday began a national census of Venezuelans living here illegally, vowing that it won’t use the information to punish or deport them.
Facing an influx of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing their country's economic collapse and rampant violence under President Nicolás Maduro, Colombian immigration officials said that about 600,000 to 800,000 Venezuelans may have moved here in recent years. But nobody really knows for sure.
“What we do know is that about 40,000 [Venezuelans] enter and exit the country daily,” said Felipe Muñoz, who is overseeing the census for the government. “But many of them enter the country irregularly, and so immigration has no records for them.”
Colombia and Venezuela share a porous 1,380-mile border that is laced with dozens, if not hundreds, of illegal crossing points. And as passports in Venezuela have become difficult to obtain, many Venezuelans are forced to use those illicit trails as they seek refuge in Colombia or other parts of Latin America.
Colombia has given more than 155,000 Venezuelans temporary residency, but it is also stepping up deportation efforts for those who entered illegally.
It's not just a Colombian problem. Chile, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil have also seen record numbers of arrivals from Venezuela, as more than 1 million people have emigrated from the once wealthy South American country in the last few years.
Asked how he would encourage people who are potentially facing expulsion to step out of the shadows, Muñoz said the presidential decree ordering the census explicitly prohibits the information from being handed over to immigration.
And while the United Nations, Colombian aid agencies and a host of other partners are participating in the plan, the immigration department is purposefully excluded, he said.
Muñoz said Venezuelans also need to look at Colombia’s track record: This year alone, the country has provided emergency medical services to more than 18,000 Venezuelans, is providing free education to more than 30,000 Venezuelan children and has vaccinated more than 116,000 — all without asking them about their legal status.
“The Colombian government has been very generous with Venezuelans,” he said.
The census is reminiscent of the U.S. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that registered about 800,000 undocumented migrants who arrived in the United States as children. When they signed up for the program under the Obama administration, they were exempted from deportation. Since then, President Donald Trump has said he will phase out the program, which currently protects about 690,000 people.
Colombia is emphasizing that those who register are not guaranteed special immigration protection.
.Jozef Merck, the Colombia representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, said the Colombian census might be one of the largest such efforts ever attempted, and said it would be key to providing aid to people who are increasingly vulnerable.
“We are trying to help the Venezuelan population because the majority of them didn’t come here voluntarily; they were forced to leave their country,” he said. UNHCR in recent weeks has asked Latin American nations to view Venezuelan exiles as people in need of humanitarian protection — and not mere economic migrants.
Colombia has opened up 523 registration points — most of them along the border with Venezuela — and will continue the registration through June 8.