The Canadian government has pledged nearly $30-million in humanitarian assistance to Colombia, as the country struggles to secure a fragile internal peace, and grapples with the wave of people still fleeing devastating conditions in Venezuela.
“There is a huge migrant crisis in our hemisphere but it’s gone largely unnoticed because neighbouring countries have welcomed Venezuelan migrants into their communities, into their countries and they are doing their part to integrate them and provide services,” Karina Gould, Minister of International Development, told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
The United Nations estimates that more than five million people have fled Venezuela due to political and socio-economic instability, which has led to violence and shortages of basic necessities.
Colombia has absorbed 1.7 million of those migrants. Last month, President Ivan Duque Marquez announced Colombia would extend “temporary protections status” to the newly arrived Venezuelans for 10 years, allowing them to access services and government support in a move that was heralded by the United Nations and Ms. Gould.
It is “really important for the dignity of Venezuelan migrants but also the stability of the region as well” that Canada act as a partner in those efforts, said Ms. Gould, who hopes to encourage more donors to step up. Canada will host the next international donors conference on June 17, alongside the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration.
Since 2019, Canada has earmarked $86-million to address the Venezuelan crisis. The newly announced $29.5-million goes beyond refugee assistance, offering funding meant to address education and economic needs across a host of vulnerable communities in Colombia. It will also help with the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC.
“The issue of peace is not over, and the conflicts, in plural, continue,” said John Orlando, Colombia director of Action Against Hunger, an international NGO, who spoke to Ms. Gould during a “virtual visit” to Colombia last week. Action Against Hunger in Colombia has received $11-million in Canadian funding since 2008 for a variety of programming.
“While [it’s] nothing compared to what the picture looked like 20 years ago, there are still kidnappings, confinement, displacement, even if it’s drop by drop. State institutions are not reaching parts of the country. Those places are still at the mercy of illegal groups,” Mr. Orlando said in an interview from Bogota.
Indeed, the retreat of the FARC following the decades-long civil war has led to a power struggle between other armed groups vying for valuable territory for the drug trade or other illicit activity. The wounds of that continuing war were on display this week, when the Colombian military announced it had bombed a rebel camp run by Miguel Botache, alias Gentil Duarte, a former member of the FARC, killing 12 people. Local reports said children were among the dead, which incensed Colombians. Authorities have refused to confirm ages, although the defence minister called the young recruits “machines of war.” The FARC peace agreement was supposed to ensure the safety of human-rights defenders, but more than 400 have been killed in Colombia since 2016, according to the UNHCR, the highest number in Latin America.
“It’s a tragedy, what is happening,” Mr. Orlando said.
Many of Colombia’s challenges were exacerbated in the pandemic. Cosas de Mujeres, a project run by the Canadian feminist research consultancy Ladysmith Collective, saw appeals for help increase in the cities of Cucuta and Cartagena. The project, which has received Canadian government support, connects women through WhatsApp with services they need, and provides real-time reports to those organizations so the need can be tracked. In the pandemic, the calls have extended to basic necessities, like food, said Dr. Julia Zulver, director of field operations for the Cosas de Mujeres project.
Both Dr. Zulver and Mr. Orlando lauded the Colombian government’s recent decision to offer legal protections to Venezuelans.
“It’s a fantastic show of solidarity on the Colombian government side,” Dr. Zulver said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that access to services like health care, like social protection, is guaranteed so that needs to come with increased resources, which is hopefully what the Canadian government will be supporting.”
“The great challenge that Colombia has is the social integration of these millions of migrants – how we turn them into a strength for the country,” Mr. Orlando added.
Carla Maria Barrientos, who also received assistance from Action Against Hunger, is a testament to that journey. She left Venezuela three years ago, at the age of 30, with her husband, because they couldn’t earn enough money to buy food, diapers or medicine for their young son. “I was getting sick from the stress of not being able to source what we needed,” Ms. Barrientos said in a telephone interview from Bogota, where she now lives. She recalled leaving Venezuela with mixed emotions – sadness, but also hope for a new beginning.
In Bogota, she has navigated xenophobia from people who looked upon her with suspicion because she was a foreigner. “But when people get to know you, and they see that you came here to work, that you didn’t come to steal anything, that you didn’t come to hurt them, they give you a hand. They give you support. I have met more good people than bad,” Ms. Barrientos said. Now she dreams of one day trading in the coffee cart she pushes around the city selling empanadas and arepas for a bricks-and-mortar shop.
She ended the conversation thanking the government of Canada for its support.
“It makes us feel less alone, that someone else has us in mind and remembers that we are here.”
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