Almost 1 million people from Venezuela are thought to have poured into neighboring Colombia in the last two years, amid a grinding economic, social and political crisis that has rattled the region.
On Wednesday, Colombian authorities said a nationwide census found that 442,462 Venezuelans are living in the country without proper documentation and 376,572 Venezuelans are in the country legally — for a total of 819,034.
However, they also estimate that more than 160,000 Colombians who were long-term residents of Venezuela have returned in recent months.
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“We’re talking about more than 1 million people who have come here from Venezuela in the last 15 months,” said Christian Kruger, the director of Colombia’s immigration agency.
The Venezuelan exodus is being felt throughout the hemisphere. According to the International Organization on Migration, there were at least 1.6 million Venezuelans living abroad in 2017 — up from 698,000 in 2015.
But Wednesday’s data, and studies in Venezuelan universities and elsewhere, suggest the total number could be much higher.
Kruger said that in addition to the Venezuelans residing in Colombia, 80 percent of those who enter the country are using it as a transit hub.
So far this year, more than 315,000 Venezuelans have left the country overland to Ecuador — many of them on their way to Peru, Argentina and Chile. By comparison, in all of 2016, only 32,000 Venezuelans crossed that border, he said.
Colombia’s long history of violence has traditionally made it an exporter of migrants and refugees, and the nation has had very little experience in being on the receiving end of a migratory crisis.
Kruger said that in 2013 there were only 132,000 foreign residents, of all nationalities, living in Colombia.
Felipe Muñoz, Colombia’s czar for border affairs, said the new census data, which was collected over two months, would be used to shape public policy. And he suggested that Venezuelans who voluntarily registered during the study might be eligible for work permits, healthcare and other migratory relief.
The study also pointed out trouble spots — cities where the Venezuelan population has become overwhelming. In one border city, Villa del Rosario, on the outskirts of the Colombian town of Cúcuta, more than 23 percent of the population is now Venezuelan. And in Maicao, in northern Colombia, Venezuelans now represent 16 percent of the population.
Muñoz said authorities had identified four cities that are “suffering complex pressures” from Venezuelan immigration that will need special attention.
The study comes just days before Colombia holds presidential elections on Sunday, where the issue of Venezuela has been one of the dominant themes.
Front-runner Ivan Duque, a 41-year-old former senator, is an advocate of taking a harder line on neighboring Venezuela and, perhaps, increasing sanctions. His rival, Gustavo Petro, 58, the former mayor of Bogotá and a former senator, is likely to take a hands-off approach with Venezuela and has said that sanctions only exacerbate the country’s economic problems and fuel migration.