Colombia is on the front lines of the most serious humanitarian challenge the Western Hemisphere has seen in the modern era: the Venezuelan refugee crisis. This ongoing crisis on America’s doorstep must be met with greater urgency before the situation spirals out of control. We need a stronger commitment for more funds and resources from the international community. Colombia cannot do it alone.
Economic collapse and political chaos in Venezuela have spawned a migrant and refugee crisis as great as any other in the world today. We see firsthand how chaos and collapse in what was once one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations — a nation with the largest proven oil reserves in the world — is destroying the lives of millions of innocent Venezuelan citizens.
More than 1.7 million Venezuelans have sought and found shelter in Colombia, more than in any other country. In January alone, approximately 290,000 children enrolled to go to school in Colombia. And the number of Venezuelan migrants is projected to continue increasing. A study by the Organization of American States estimates that by the end of 2020, there could be 7.5 million to 8.2 million Venezuelan migrants worldwide.
The cost of providing humanitarian support to Venezuelan refugees has placed considerable strain on Colombian resources. For example, migrant education costs $160 million per year; emergency health care costs nearly $40 million per year; and water and sanitation services cost $260 million.
Colombia is doing its part to care for the migrants, while urging the world to pay attention to the instability and state-sponsored terror that the Venezuelan dictator, Nicolás Maduro, is attempting to export to other countries in the region.
I was among the first international leaders to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, support that I strongly reaffirmed after the Maduro regime used force to try to prevent duly elected members of the Venezuelan National Assembly from complying with their constitutional role. Recently, I was among of group of world leaders, including President Trump, who met with Guaidó to signal Colombia’s continued support for his legitimacy.
Colombia, a NATO partner, is the strongest U.S. ally in the region. As the Maduro dictatorship provides material support for terrorist gangs along the border, it is the strength and stability of Colombia that are holding the forces of disorder and disruption in check. Moreover, by providing refuge and assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who continue to stream across our border, we are holding the line on this massive refugee crisis and preventing a possible surge of destitute migrants from attempting to cross into North America.
But Colombia cannot stand alone in resisting the effects of this crisis. The region needs greater support from the international community. According to experts at the Brookings Institution, an estimated 16 percent of Venezuelans have fled their country, and the pace of that outflow is greater than the refugee crisis in Syria.
The Brookings report also notes the disproportionate international response: “In response to the Syrian crisis, for example, the international community mobilized large capital inflows, spending a cumulative $7.4 billion on refugee response efforts in the first four years. Funding for the Venezuelan crisis has not kept pace; four years into the crisis, the international community has spent just $580 million”.
The crisis in Syria is terrible, and the Syrian people deserve our support. But the world needs to understand that a humanitarian crisis of greater proportions is unfolding — and accelerating — right here in the Americas.
The United States has been a steadfast ally in the region in the shared goals of promoting peace, security, democracy, human rights, development and stability in the region. For example, Congress passed and Trump signed into law the Venezuela Emergency Relief, Democracy Assistance and Development (VERDAD) Act. Also last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development pledged humanitarian assistance.
But more must be done. A crisis of this magnitude is simply too much for Colombia and the region to shoulder. We hope the world will rise to the occasion and step up its response to the Venezuelan crisis before it is too late. The fate of the Western Hemisphere depends on it.
Iván Duque is the president of Colombia.