BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia will tighten control of over its porous border with Venezuela as thousands of migrants fleeing a rapidly deteriorating political and economic crisis escape into the neighboring Andean nation.
In a visit to a border city at the epicenter of Colombia's mounting migration crisis, President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday announced new measures that could make it more difficult for Venezuelan migrants to cross into the country illegally or remain there without any official status.
"Colombia has never lived a situation like the one we are encountering today," Santos said.
Migration into Colombia has surged as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has moved to consolidate his rule and the nation's economy plummets. Colombia migration authorities say there are an estimated 600,000 Venezuelans currently in Colombia — double the number six months ago. Venezuela exile associations and some border city officials have said they believe that number is higher.
The unprecedented migration wave is putting strains on Colombia at a delicate time in its history. The nation is crawling out of a five-decade-long armed conflict following the signing of a peace deal with leftist rebels in 2016. Many of the Venezuelans are arriving illegally and in need of medical attention.
"This is a tragedy," Santos said. "And I want to reiterate to President Maduro: This is the result of your policies."
More than 2,000 additional military officers will be deployed to control the hundreds of dirt-road crossings known as "trochas" that dot Colombia's 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border with Venezuela. A new migration patrol unit will also police public spaces where Venezuelan arrivals congregate, provide them orientation and to control issues like prostitution that have surfaced in the migration wave's wake.
Migration authorities will no longer issue temporary border crossing cards, which have already been granted to 1.5 million Venezuelans to allow them short visits to purchase food and medicine. All Venezuelans inside the country will also be required to present themselves to officials and enroll in a registry.
Santos said Colombia wants to extend its solidarity to needy Venezuelans and will open a migrant center capable of providing aid to an estimated 2,000 people in the near future. But he also stressed that migration from Venezuela to Colombia needs to be conducted in a safe and legal manner.
"Venezuela was very generous to Colombia when Colombians went in search of a better life," he said, referring to the flight of more than 1 million Colombians to Venezuela decades ago when the country was entrenched in armed conflict. "We should also be generous to Venezuela."
In recent months, Colombia has moved to provide a special legal status to some Venezuelan migrants, but only those who entered with a stamped passport. Officials believe more than half of all Venezuelans, however, are entering illegally. Getting an appointment to obtain or renew a passport in Venezuela can take months. Last year the government passed a decree allowing expired Venezuelan passports to remain valid for an extra two years amid paper and ink shortages.
Jozef Merkx, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Colombia, said the country's passport policy is a "limited solution."
"The majority of the Venezuelans have no recorded status whatsoever," he said.
The estimated 300,000 Venezuelans who are in the country illegally have few means of obtaining an official status that would allow them to work. As a result, many have found themselves sleeping in bus terminals or selling fruit on the streets for a few dollars they can send to relatives back home.
In cities like Cucuta, which Santos visited Thursday, the situation is especially dire. Eduardo Espinel, the leader of a group called Venezuelans in Cucuta, said that the migrants arriving there are typically those with the fewest resources to flee. Whereas it can take $1,000 to reach Chile it only costs $4 to reach Cucuta, he said. Many arrive having spent all their money on the journey.
"It's a massive exodus," Espinel said. "And it will continue rising every day."
Not counted in the 600,000 estimate provided by Colombia migration authorities are Venezuelans with dual citizenship or their Venezuela-born children. A large portion of this 1-million plus population has returned to Colombia in recent years. While the Venezuelan children of Colombian nations qualify to become citizens, the process is onerous. Community advocates say it requires getting documents from Venezuela that can be difficult or impossible to obtain.
The swell is particularly stressing Colombia's health system, which treats Venezuelans regardless of their status. Within Venezuela, food shortages have led to rising malnutrition rates and hospitals with scarce supplies have become increasingly unable to treat even basic maladies. Many of the Venezuelan migrants are arriving in need of treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes and cancer. Colombia provided emergency health services to nearly 25,000 Venezuelans last year.
Maduro has repeatedly denied his country is facing a humanitarian crisis and has refused to allow aid to enter the country.
Santos urged his Venezuelan counterpart to reconsider this refusal.
"The best way to resolve this problem, at least in the short term, is to permit humanitarian aid," Santos said. "So that they don't have to leave."