My name is Andrea Osorio. I’m Colombian, from Bogota. Although I’m Colombian by birth and have lived here for many years, my true feeling is that it is better to be a citizen of the world.
Colombians and Venezuelans are neighbors and are close like sisters or brothers. Simon Bolivar, the great South American hero, was born in Venezuela and died in Colombia. Migration between Venezuela and Colombia has historically gone both ways. It may depend on where to find jobs or because of a deteriorating political situation, corrupt government, or the drug cartels. Whatever the reasons for migrating, some of them have problems adjusting to their new home.
Colombia in particular has experienced violence, from the FARC especially, and also the ELN, the Sinaloa Cartel, and many other terrorist groups. Consequently, many Colombians in the 1980s went to work in Venezuela because they couldn’t work here. It was terrible then in Colombia, especially in the countryside where the violence upset our economy. A few years ago, I translated materials for the United Nations which documented incidents about the guerillas, the military, and paramilitary raping indigenous women and causing families to abandon their homes. A typical displaced family, maybe five in the household, lived in a rural area and grew vegetables, and one day the paramilitary would stop by and say “Kill a cow for us!” The family would have to do what they were told or face being shot.
To escape the violence there was a mass exodus from the rural areas to the cities where they lived in terrible conditions, actually in cardboard boxes. The UN refugee agency estimates that as of 2020 there are 8.3 million internally displaced Colombians. That’s the highest internal displacement number globally.
Venezuelans and displaced persons in Colombia are two disparate groups who compete for limited resources. Venezuelans have a lot of government support but that doesn’t apply to displaced persons. We know too that the international community provides assistance to migrants, but funds that are supposed to help migrants get caught up in the bureaucracy and don’t get to them.
Another problem is the growing xenophobia among the less educated rural poor who feel they are being displaced by Venezuelan. They believe it’s just like in the States where migrants are accused of taking jobs away from Americans because the migrants work illegally for smaller wages. My view is that we should try to understand the plight of the Venezuelan refugees because one day we may be in a similar predicament. Some of the migrants may be bad and commit crimes but every community, especially where there are many migrants, has good and bad people. Since I’ve lived in different countries and have observed how displaced people need to struggle, I know it’s important to be nonjudgmental and have the humanity to know that people can live through things that you have never gone through.
Personally, I suffered from racism when I was in the States. I didn’t expect to see racism in Colombia but it is there and throughout Latin America, where it takes the form of a social class structure based on money, education, and other socioeconomic factors. We call it “estratos sociales” or social stratification. The strata, for example, might range from 0 to 6 with strata 0-3 living in terrible conditions. These people are treated like they are worthless and not quite human. The higher end of the strata has money and elite status. They live very good lives and are treated well and respected by everyone. This social stratum impacts all aspects of life. If you live in a strata 1-3 certification, for instance, you are charged differently and arbitrarily for water, electricity, and even cable.
The effect of social classes makes it even more challenging for immigrants and refugees who are usually considered to be in the lowest strata. These people arrive here hoping to improve their lives but because of their low status find that difficult.
Foreign aid for the displaced is coming in for Venezuelans but not as much for Colombians. Colombian mothers resent what is given to the children of Venezuelan refugees. The mothers complain that space in schools is taken from their children and given to the Venezuelans. The Covid pandemic and meager assistance have aggravated this tension in the poor Colombian communities which I’ve seen that look like the worst slums and shantytowns (favelas) in Brazil. Some of the refugees are going to other South American countries as well, and I know of the rape of children and other dangers they face. There are insufficient resources to support all the needy and keep them safe.
We should focus on educating Colombians in empathy and humanity and encourage them to help those in need, be they our displaced Colombians or Venezuelans. We should value life. The poor need opportunity, not just handouts. Unfortunately, we must do this while our corrupt government makes things worse because the bureaucracy takes from the people who need the most help.
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