A humanitarian and diplomatic crisis erupted on the Colombia-Venezuela border on August 22, after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro decreed a state of emergency in six municipalities of Táchira State and closed the border. Over 1,500 Venezuelan troops were dispatched to Táchira to conduct door-to-door raids, where Colombian migrants, reside to root out paramilitaries and smugglers. Thousands of Colombians were displaced or fled in response to these efforts. These measures came in response to an August 19 shoot-out that left three members of the Venezuelan security forces wounded.
While dealing with criminal groups is an important problem for the state to address, this massive displacement is inhumane and contrary to international law.
The remote and porous 2,341 km border provides for the perfect mix of isolation, corruption, cash, and weak institutions on both sides of the northern border has led to a booming contraband industry. Illegal gasoline is an especially lucrative business, with one million gallons entering Colombia each year. Venezuelan currency distortions have led to an influx of cheap food stuffs into Colombia.
With a high number of homicides, kidnappings and extortion rackets, the presence of illegal groups in this area of Venezuela has also taken its toll on civilians living in these areas. According to Arco Iris, 30,000 homicides have taken place in the past decade. As detailed in La Frontera Caliente entre Colombia y Venezuela, historically Colombian illegal armed groups including paramilitaries, guerillas and narco-traffickers crossed this border to re-group, rest, or engage in illegal operations.
In late August, when the displacement began, Colombian television showed footage of Venezuela’s National Guard marking and bulldozing migrants’ houses. Families, including small children and elderly, were shown crossing the river into Colombia with only what they could carry on their backs. Since then, over 1,100 Colombians have been forcibly deported or repatriated (including 244 minors) and over 7,000 others returned spontaneously due to fear of reprisals.
Hundreds of dispossessed Colombians are residing in shelters in the Colombian cities of Cucuta and Villa del Rosario where there is a humanitarian effort led by the Colombian government with the assistance of international agencies. Others, who returned spontaneously, are residing in makeshift shelters along the border while others have made their way to their families’ areas of origin. Many of those returning had originally fled armed conflict in Colombia and sought refuge in Venezuela.
Among the deportees are Colombians who have lived for 10, 20 or more years in Venezuela with legal status. 5.6 million Colombians live in Venezuela because prior to these developments the state generally welcomed them. Up until 50 years ago, this border was largely a fiction, with the society and economy of Táchira more incorporated into Colombia than Venezuela. Still today there are many extended families are divided by the border and border residents regularly crossed back and forth.
While addressing criminality at the Colombian-Venezuelan border is needed, doing it by inciting xenophobia and trampling Colombians’ rights is not justified. Families of mixed Colombian and Venezuelan nationalities have been separated. There are also refugees, migrants, and Venezuelan nationals wrongly caught up in these actions. Colombians deported report mistreatment at the hands of members of the Venezuelan National Guard, and having to leave documents and all their possessions behind.
As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights rightly noted on August 28 “collective expulsions run contrary to international law” and the State is obliged “to take an individual decision in respect to each deportation.”
The manner in which this has unfolded has added thousands to the number of displaced in Colombia, a country where over 6 million persons have been displaced by conflict and where thousands of others face dislocation due to large scale development projects.
Arbitrary and collective forcible deportations of individuals through profiling by country origin will not resolve the protracted illegality problems that Venezuela and Colombia must confront. A binational concerted effort between these two countries to address corruption, dismantle illegal armed groups and address the economic disparities that fuel illegal trade in goods, would be more constructive and more in line with Venezuela’s public support for the peace process in Colombia.
These deportations must stop. The humanitarian and rights questions concerning those affected should be addressed. Then Venezuela and Colombia need to sit down and figure out how to resolve the border criminal issues in a responsible manner that targets the real problems.
*Gimena Sánchez is a Senior Associate at WOLA