June 19 2018

Colombia: Building on Experience to help Venezuelan Refugees

Q&A with Angela Maria Rosales, the National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Colombia, on supporting families fleeing neighboring Venezuela.

BOGOTA, Colombia—Over the past year, 1.5 million Venezuelans have been displaced, majority seeking refuge in neighboring Colombia, as they flee political and economic unrest.  

In Colombia, the refugee situation comes on top of the country’s historic internal displacement crisis that continues to grow despite a 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). More than seven million people–about 15% of the population–are displaced and violence uprooted 3,000 families in 2017 alone, according to United Nations’ estimates. 

SOS Children’s Villages Colombia is particularly concerned about the risks refugee children face as their families struggle to find shelter, food and health services. Some Venezuelan families have been helped through SOS Children’s Villages family strengthening, but the demand for help grows. 

Ms. Rosales proposes to help the growing refugee community near the SOS Children’s Village in Bucaramanga, a city near the Venezuelan border, by providing child friendly spaces (CFSs) to address some of the urgent needs of children and families. The CFSs would provide educational activities, psychological support and offer assistance to help families acquire legal registration in Colombia and to access public services. 

In the following interview, Ms. Rosales talks about the needs of refugees and internally displaced families. 

An estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans have been displaced, many traveling to other countries in the region. What impact has this had on Colombia? 

Some Venezuelans have been able to find a job and a place to live. But the vast majority have come to Colombia with practically nothing other than their own clothing and some basic belongings. There are cities near the border with Venezuela where people are living in the parks, sleeping on the ground with their children. Some of the children are able to attend school, but they have no place to live and are very exposed. 

What is very worrying to us is that there has been an increase in the sexual exploitation of children and women. Young women are forced to work as sex workers as a way to create income. 

What are the authorities doing to help? 

The Colombian government has provided shelters near the Venezuela border that provide services for people for a short period of time—a few days, until they move on to other places in the country. These shelters provide a first response and help the refugees process their legal documents so they can access government services. 

The health and educational services are providing basic attention to the [Venezuelan] children who are coming, but the health service was not very strong before this crisis.

With so many Venezuelans coming, the health services are almost in crisis. That is also the situation with the schools and some of the services for very young children like kindergarten and day care. 

We have Venezuelan families in our family strengthening services whose social conditions in their home country weren’t that bad, but of course they had other restrictions that led them to leave their country. But now that they came to Colombia, they had to leave everything behind and now they are living in shacks and very poor neighborhoods of the big cities. Every day there is a growing number of families in need. 


Are Venezuelans able to find work in Colombia to help provide for their families? 

A lot of people from Venezuela are trying to earn income through non-formal labor. They are selling on the streets, asking for money on public transportation, or they are being employed without all the legal requirements. We’ve seen doctors or architects who are begging for money on the street, or washing cars or selling food on the corner, trying to generate income to support their family now that they are here, or to send money home to family who are still in Venezuela. 


Are there large numbers of unaccompanied children coming into Colombia? 

Some children are coming into Colombia to study on their own. They cross the border, they walk for three or four hours, they study in a neighboring city, and at the end of the day they walk back home to Venezuela. There are people who are looking to exploit or abuse them, so there is real danger to these groups of children who are crossing the border to study. The majority go back home every day. But some others, mostly teenagers, do stay in the country without the support of family members. They wander in the cities and try to find a way to survive. 

Colombia has a large population of people displaced by the country’s historic conflicts. Has this experience helped in your thinking about ways you might help this new wave of refugees? 

This is a difficult time in Colombia because of consequences from the peace process. There are gangs and illegal armed groups that are reforming and displacing populations in parts of the country. We now have a situation where Venezuelans are migrating to Colombia at the same time that we have displacement due to the internal conflict. 

The experiences that SOS Children’s Villages Colombia have had in the past—working with children who are coming out of the armed groups, and working with people who have been displaced and are in family strengthening, and even the emergency response work we did in Mocoa in 2017 due to flooding— have helped prepare us. We have more capacity in thinking about solutions and ways of being more effective in responding to emergencies. 

What more can an organization like SOS Children’s Villages do in this challenging situation? 

We are worried about the children who have been separated from their families because of the migration situation. This has touched us. We see this is an opportunity to work on reintegration and support these families socially and legally, so that they have access to public services and they can resume the care of their children. We not only want to prevent those who are coming to Colombia from being separated, but we also want to help reintegrate those who are already separated because the family had no means of taking care of their children.