The emigration of 5.6 million Venezuelans since 2015 means South America is experiencing the largest forced displacement in the region’s history. On March 1, 2021, the Colombian government, the main host country for Venezuelan migrants, issued an executive decree that made headlines around the world. Decree 216 of 2021 could regularize more than a million forcibly displaced Venezuelans who reside illegally in Colombia.
If successful, this would be one of the largest immigration regularization processes in the world. Why has the Colombian government made such a risky decision? He did, I maintain, because he followed a distinctly South American approach of ‘state control + human rights’ in migration governance, which is based on understanding migration as a phenomenon. inevitable.
Most South American specialists in migration governance have pointed out the lack of regional cooperation and coordination to deal with Venezuelan emigration. This position ignores that the most effective Venezuelan migrant regularization policies that have been adopted by some of the major South American host countries in fact follow a regional logic and a distinctly South American approach to migration governance.
I call this ‘state control + human rights’ approach because its underlying logic is the inevitability of migration, since states cannot prevent the movement of people and it is not possible. to effectively control all borders. Following this logic, the regularization of migrants is the solution to irregularity. The regularization of migrants can benefit both states, by increasing state control over their populations, and migrants, by expanding their access to rights.
This logic contrasts with that prevailing in many other parts of the world, where preventing unwanted migrants means using detention and deportation as solutions to irregularity. Colombia’s regularization decree is based on a distinctly South American approach to migration governance.
South American countries are currently home to around 80% of Venezuelans who have left their country since 2015, fleeing hyperinflation, unemployment, food and medicine shortages, rampant crime and political persecution. Initially, most South American countries opened their doors to Venezuelans and created ad hoc mechanisms for temporary regularization. But as the crisis in Venezuela worsened and the number of migrants increased, alongside the health and economic crisis caused by the Covid pandemic, many governments adopted restrictive measures aimed at preventing further waves of immigrants.
South American governments have failed to reach agreement on the legal status to be granted to Venezuelan migrants: refugees or migrants? They also failed to agree on a common approach to regularize displaced Venezuelans. This has led analysts to say that national approaches prevail over regional approaches.
However, despite the lack of formal regional coordination, the policy responses of some of the major recipient countries are based on a common South American approach to migration governance. The countries I am referring to are Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay. In a recent article, I called them the “Atlântico + Colombia” group. The governments of these countries are actively seeking alternative medium and long-term regularization and protection mechanisms, based on a regional approach to migration governance.
Argentina and Uruguay unilaterally extended the Mercosur Residence Agreement (MRA) to Venezuelans, although Venezuela has not ratified it. This results in a two-year residence permit, which can be converted into a permanent permit. According to the R4V platform, Argentina and Uruguay are the countries that have granted the most residence permits compared to the total Venezuelan population residing in their territory.
Brazil adopted a decree that extends the provisions of the MRA to all neighboring countries and recognizes thousands of Venezuelans as refugees, based on the Cartagena definition of a regional refugee.
Colombia deserves more attention as it has particular experience as a beneficiary country. The arrival of 1.7 million Venezuelans in just three years represents a major challenge for the country. Initially, the Colombian state adopted short-term permits. However, as the text of Decree 216 of 2021 admits, these authorizations have had little success and more than half of the Venezuelan population in Colombia has an irregular migration status.
This is part of the rationale given by the Colombian government for adopting this regularization program which grants Venezuelan immigrants a ten-year residence permit, which can eventually become permanent. The other part of the rationale is based on a long-term perspective of integrating immigrants into the country.
As indicated in the aforementioned decree, the irregularity leads to a lack of information on the resident population, which has a negative impact on the economy and on State control over its territory and its population. Irregularity also encourages human rights violations, which in turn prevent migrants from “contributing to the growth and development of the state”. Thus, the solution to irregularity in the context of large-scale displacement is regularization, not expulsion.
This logic of regularization is based on the understanding of migration as an inevitable phenomenon. As Colombian government officials recently stated, “the idea of an open or closed gate is absurd” because “it is impossible to control every inch” of such a long and geographically complex border. From his point of view, Venezuelans will continue to enter Colombian territory, with or without migratory status, due to the extreme situation that Venezuela is going through.
This is not to say that South America should be a global example of migration governance. There are many issues in the region, such as implementation issues, episodes of xenophobic violence and discrimination, and anti-immigration rhetoric. However, initiatives such as Colombia’s Temporary Protection Status, if successful, can expand access to rights for hundreds of thousands – or millions – of people. Moreover, it is adopted in a context of limited state capacities.
The “state control + human rights” approach to migration governance is characteristic of South America and is based on the development of a regional migration regime that liberalizes residence and facilitates mobility. This regime developed in the 2000s and has a strong human rights rhetoric. Many analysts have argued that with the “right turn” in South America there has been a “restrictive shift” towards national approaches to regional migration governance, but the regional approach remains very evident.
Two academics on the subject, Riggirozzi and Ryan, recently argued that “some elements of regionalism survive more broadly, […] as long-term developments that fit into a larger dialectical discourse in the development of transnational policymaking. The “Atlântico + Colombia” group approach illustrates what we mean when we say that regional approaches survive “more broadly”.