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An Opportunity for Change: The Case for Economic Inclusion of Venezuelans in Riohacha

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Executive Summary

The Colombian city of Riohacha has become a primary destination for forcibly displaced Venezuelans abroad. Riohacha is located in the northern Colombian department of La Guajira, in close proximity to the Venezuelan border, and hosts more than 47,000 Venezuelan refugees and other migrants. However, the city has struggled to integrate them. Furthermore, other vulnerable populations such as returned Colombians and the Wayúu—a binational Indigenous population living on both sides of the Colombian-Venezuelan border—also face dire conditions in Riohacha.[1] The existing development challenges of the city call for a different approach to ensure the economic inclusion of Venezuelans and to promote better opportunities for all. This report explores the status of economic inclusion for Venezuelans in Riohacha, the existing barriers, and opportunities to generate growth. The case of Riohacha, where a wide range of development, security, and humanitarian challenges collide, showcases the need for greater solutions to host and integrate forcibly displaced Venezuelans throughout the regions in Colombia that experience similar circumstances.

In Riohacha, forcibly displaced Venezuelans face precarious conditions with limited livelihood opportunities.[2] Most live in peri-urban settlements alongside returned Colombians and Indigenous Wayúus. In these settlements, displaced Venezuelans and other vulnerable populations struggle to access essential services and face violence and gang activity.[3] Displaced Venezuelans also face a range of challenges to obtaining decent jobs, especially as there are limited opportunities in the region. The way Venezuelans in Riohacha integrate into the labor market is dependent on their type of mobility. For instance, Venezuelans in transit might look for short-term jobs in the region while they plan their departure to other cities. Similarly, circular migrants (coming back and forth from Venezuela to Colombia) might search for seasonal jobs in Colombia, which allow them to return to their homes and families in Venezuela. Finally, those settling in Riohacha likely seek more stable employment, which is hard to find. Ultimately, many of the Venezuelans who stay in Riohacha do so due to lack of funds to cover the expenses to move to another city where they might find better opportunities. Therefore, those who remain in Riohacha tend to face high levels of economic precarity.

The lack of job opportunities in the region affects Venezuelans and locals alike. However, Venezuelans face increasing challenges to integrate into the labor market. As a result, many have been pushed to work in informal jobs, where they face exploitation and abuse. This also has led to some distributional effects in the region, affecting real wages for those in the informal sector with educational attainment less than secondary education.[4] Yet even with limited economic inclusion, Venezuelans have contributed to the economy in the region, as they consume local goods and services and pay taxes on such consumption. Greater Venezuelan economic inclusion could help mitigate some of the negative effects while also supporting the local economy and fostering an environment that promotes job creation and formalization.[5] Furthermore, greater economic inclusion would allow Venezuelans to become more self-reliant, reducing their vulnerabilities. To achieve this, the municipality of Riohacha needs to address the specific barriers that Venezuelans face in the region, including the following:

  1. Difficulties with regularization. Displaced Venezuelans and Venezuelan-returned Wayúu are struggling to access the Temporary Protected Statute for Venezuelan Migrants (ETPV, by its Spanish acronym), which allows them to stay and work in the country for up to 10 years. Some of the issues include the long distances to register for the permit and communication issues with Indigenous populations.

  2. Limited support from the local government. Displaced Venezuelans are not included in municipal projects and policies, including the local development strategy. Furthermore, unlike other municipalities such as Barranquilla and Bogotá, Riohacha does not have a center to provide guidance to Venezuelans to access important programs and services.

  3. Increased challenges for Venezuelan women. Many Venezuelan women in Riohacha are the sole caregivers for their families, yet they do not have access to childcare services. The lack of economic inclusion has pushed some to resort to survival sex as a coping mechanism.

  4. Lack of employment programs. Displaced Venezuelans struggle to access the employment programs of the Public Employment Service in Riohacha, which supports individuals looking to find jobs in Colombia. Moreover, the city does not have a local employability office that could help advise Venezuelans about how to find jobs or obtain social protection.

  5. Inability to move to other areas with more labor market opportunities. In Riohacha, Venezuelans have limited access to employment, but their financial precarity leaves them unable to move to other areas of Colombia to find jobs. This creates a cycle of economic instability that is difficult for many Venezuelans to overcome.

  6. Insufficient funding for integration. The financial requirements to support integration efforts for Venezuelans in La Guajira are significantly underfunded. Donors have covered only US$16,887 of the total US$542,522 needed for integration in La Guajira.[6]

  7. Discrimination, xenophobia, and violence toward Venezuelans. Criminal groups prey on vulnerable Venezuelans and Wayúu. Furthermore, 28 percent of Venezuelans in La Guajira do not feel safe in their communities, reporting general violence, sexual abuse, a lack of safe spaces, and harassment in public spaces such as bus stops and supermarkets.[7]

Even with the preexisting development challenges in Riohacha, improving the economic inclusion of Venezuelans could lead to positive labor market effects. Evidence from other contexts shows us that this is possible. Ethiopia is a good example. The communities surrounding the Aw Barre and Sheder refugee camps experienced a significant economic transformation, shifting from agriculture-based economies to bustling societies with flourishing businesses, trade, and opportunities.[8] The support provided by humanitarian actors in promoting cash-based assistance and other types of aid and jobs has contributed to the dynamization of the local economy. The same can happen in Riohacha. Indeed, supporting greater economic inclusion for Venezuelans would allow them to earn better incomes, thus incentivizing consumption and mobilizing the local economy. Riohacha also needs to create more and better job opportunities for all. The Venezuelan displacement can open the door for development and humanitarian investments to mobilize the economy and spur growth in the region.

The wide range of challenges in Riohacha demands an integrated response that focuses on improving conditions in the region and generating more opportunities for Venezuelans and locals alike. Below, we lay out some recommendations to promote the economic inclusion of Venezuelans in Riohacha and improve conditions for all.

To the Municipality of Riohacha

  • The municipality should update its development plan to include displaced Venezuelans, Venezuela-returned Wayúus, and Colombian returnees in its policies and programs.

  • The municipality, in coordination with the Ministry of Labor, should create a unit within the Secretary of Tourism and Economic Development to promote Venezuelan employment, similar to units in Barranquilla and Bogotá. In the short term, it should strengthen the implementation of the Public Employment Service for Venezuelans.

  • The municipality should assess the livelihood conditions of the Wayúu population and create a roadmap to overcome the challenges they face.

  • The municipality should ensure that Venezuelan women can access the services available to local women, including childcare services.

  • The municipality should open a reception center to provide services and support to Venezuelans, such as those in Barranquilla and Bogotá.

To the Government of Colombia (GOC)

  • The GOC should improve its coordination mechanisms and financial and technical support for Venezuelans in La Guajira and its municipalities, including Riohacha.

  • The GOC should strengthen the capacity of Migración Colombia in La Guajira to process the EPTV, taking into consideration the specific needs of secluded communities and Indigenous Wayúus.

  • The GOC, through the Gerencia de Fronteras—which coordinates the response to human mobility in Colombia—should upscale the implementation of the Human Mobility Program, which links individuals and families in Riohacha with decent jobs in other areas of Colombia.

  • The GOC should invest in infrastructure projects in La Guajira, instating a requirement to hire the Venezuelan and Wayúu populations.

  • The GOC should expand the Special Economic Zones program to provide a fiscal benefit to companies that hire a percentage of the Venezuelan displaced population in La Guajira.

To the UN’s Inter-Agency Group for Mixed Migration Flows (GIFMM) in La Guajira

  • The GIFMM should conduct a market analysis in the region and design skills-training and livelihood programs with a gender lens to help boost the skills of Venezuelans and improve their integration.

  • The GIFMM should implement programs to improve social cohesion with the goal of minimizing the perception that Venezuelans are taking jobs from locals.

  • The GIFMM should expand support to Migración Colombia to facilitate the regularization process for the ETPV and to support the registration of individuals in remote areas.

To Donors and Multilateral Development Banks

  • Donors should increase funding for the overall Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan 2022 in La Guajira and fully fund the integration efforts—increasing resources available for cash-based support—and livelihood and entrepreneurship programs.

  • The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank should boost funding for infrastructure development in La Guajira, focusing on improving conditions in peri-urban areas where displaced Venezuelans and other vulnerable populations live and generating jobs for both locals and Venezuelans.

  • Donors and development banks, in coordination with the GOC, should pursue a compact-like approach to foster the integration of Venezuelans and promote overall development in the country. The compact should encourage the right to work and rights at work and boost job creation in underdeveloped areas that host high numbers of Venezuelans, such as La Guajira.

To the Private Sector

  • Companies in the Special Economic Zones should implement programs to formally hire Venezuelans, Venezuela-returned Wayúus, and Colombian returnees.

  • Companies in other regions of Colombia should spread awareness of the benefits of hiring displaced Venezuelans and support the engagement of Venezuelans through core businesses and value chains.

[1] Nicholas Casey, “El colapso de Venezuela amenaza la existencia del pueblo ancestral Wayúu,” New York Times, July 30, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/es/2019/07/30/espanol/america-latina/wayuu-venezuela-crisis.html.

[2] Bram Ebus, “Bajo un sol inclemente: Venezolanos en vilo en la frontera colombiana,” International Crisis Group, February 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/es/latin-america-caribbean/andes/colombiavenezuela/under-merciless-sun-venezuelans-stranded-across-colombian-border.

[3] Interviews, January 2022.

[4] Leonardo Peñaloza, “Living with the Neighbors: The Effect of Venezuelan Forced Migration on Wages in Colombia,” Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Centro de Estudios Distributivos, Laborales y Sociales, Working Paper 248, July 2019, http://hdl.handle.net/10419/214141.

[5] Graham et al., “From Displacement to Development.”

[6] Inter-agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V). “Funding Update” accessed February 2022: https://www.r4v.info/es/financiamiento

[7] R4V, “Colombia: Needs Report of La Guajira—ACTED,” December 2019, https://www.r4v.info/en/document/colombia-needs-assessment-report-la-guajira-acted.

[8] Jimmy Graham and Sarah Miller, “From Displacement to Development: How Ethiopia Can Create Shared Growth by Facilitating Economic Inclusion for Refugees,” Center for Global Development, Refugees International, June 2021, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/506c8ea1e4b01d9450dd53f5/t/60c7959f83c9e30424d56695/1623692708140/Displacement-to-Development-How-Ethiopia-Can-Create-Shared-Growth.pdf.