Migration generates major social changes. These changes, especially in countries that receive massive migratory flows over short periods of time, often result in complex situations around issues such as cultural adaptation or employment. Venezuelan migration to Colombia has had a significant impact on several aspects of Colombian society and poses great challenges. However, contrary to popular belief, the available figures do not seem to indicate that Venezuelan migrants have significantly affected Colombian employment opportunities, except in the low-skilled informal sector.
Venezuela and Colombia have a long history of population movements. In the second half of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to Venezuela in search of work and opportunities for progress. At the end of the last century, the region of Norte de Santander and Santander do Sul (Cúcuta and Bucaramanga) experienced good development as sources of food and manufactured products for the Venezuelan market.
Permanent migration has probably decreased, but a fabric of enterprises and a labor market crossing borders has been created (without government intervention, except in very specific cases). Over the past decade, however, the tide has turned and a tide of Venezuelans has crossed the border in search of a better life. The migratory movement over the years has been so significant that today it is not known with certainty how many recent immigrants are Venezuelans and how many are Colombians or descendants of ex-emigrants returning to the country.
What we do know is that the migratory flow has increased considerably since 2013. Some sources claim that between 2013 and 2017, the number of Venezuelans quadrupled, exceeding half a million. According to Colombia’s National Department of Statistics (Dane), in 2019 there were already 1.77 million, more than the size of Barranquilla, Colombia’s third largest city (1.27 million inhabitants). The pandemic, however, not only halted migration, but generated a reverse flow with the reduction of 41,000 Venezuelans in one year.
The return of Venezuelans due to the lack of opportunities due to the pandemic seems to indicate that at least some of them are sensitive to economic and / or political changes in both countries. Recent measures taken by the Colombian government to allow Venezuelans to obtain citizenship in a short period of time are likely to speed up migration processes, but will not necessarily free them from immigrant status.
In contrast, the migrant population is, on average, significantly younger than the Colombian population. According to Dane, nearly six in ten Venezuelans are under 25, compared to just over four in ten of Colombians. In addition, almost a quarter of Venezuelans are 10 years old or younger.
Immigrants and the labor market
The effect of Venezuelan migration on the Colombian labor market is not easy to assess because there is not enough data or studies. However, it is possible to present some hypotheses based on what we know. Clearly, this new population constitutes an increase in the labor supply and is likely to have economic effects on employment and wage levels. But it is also a factor in increasing demand for goods and services that generates market expansion and opportunities for production expansion.
In order to understand the impact on the labor market, it is necessary to take into account the fact that almost a quarter of migrants are 10 years old or less and therefore do not participate in the labor market. In addition, according to data from Migración Colombia, only 44% are regular immigrants, which means that the vast majority are in the informal and low productivity sectors.
In general, Venezuelan immigrants, especially recent and low-skilled immigrants, are found relatively close to the border, especially in the cities of Cúcuta, Barranquilla, Cartagena, in the department of La Guajira and in the northern coastal areas. However, a good proportion reached Bogotá (almost 600 kilometers away). In terms of profession, they are mainly employed in personal services which require little qualification, such as beauty salons and hairdressers, home delivery and informal commerce.
The only known economic statistical survey on the effect of Venezuelan migrants was carried out in Ecuador, where the relative weight of immigration in relation to the country’s population is similar to that of Colombia (around 3%) and the characteristics of migrants are similar. The study “The effects of Venezuelan migration on the labor market in Ecuador” concludes that, in the case of Ecuador, no significant effect of migration can be found on the labor market in general, but that the quality of employment and income decline young people with low levels of education. Given the similarities, it is possible that something similar is happening in Colombia.
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