Colombia′s refugee crisis a major issue as nation goes to the polls | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 27.05.2018
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Colombia's refugee crisis a major issue as nation goes to the polls

Colombians are voting for a new president. But instead of the peace process and former FARC fighters, the focus of the campaign has been on refugees from Venezuela, security and social policy.

"I am convinced that Venezuelan refugees will become the most important domestic issue after the elections," Hubert Gehring, head of the of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation's (KAS) Bogota office, told DW. More than the peace treaty with FARC that was signed one and a half years ago, the country's refugee crisis has been a central issue in the election campaign leading up to Sunday's vote, he explained. Other significant topics have included security, education, health care and the economy.

According to the Colombian immigration authority "Migracion Colombia," more than 800,000 Venezuelans are currently in Colombia. The number of border crossings once again increased by 40 percent shortly before the elections in Venezuela on May 20.

Welcome, and then what?

Gehring believes there is a parallel between the situation in Colombia and the development of Germany's refugee policy. "In 2017, Colombia was similar to Germany in 2015. It started with a culture of welcome," he said. But since then, the sheer number of refugees has led to a certain threshold being crossed.

According to Gehring, everything depends on successful integration policy. "I believe that one of the new Colombian president's first tasks will be to implement concrete practical solutions on the ground." An additional challenge: most of the refugees now entering Colombia from Venezuela are members of the country's poor, working class.

Colombian volunteer distributes food in a migrant shelter (picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Vergara)

Volunteers have been helping out in Colombia's refugee camps, for example by distributing food

Until recently, migration between the two neighboring countries was in the opposite direction. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians left their homeland to earn good money in the oil-rich neighboring country during the Colombian civil war.

Turkey as a role model?

The views of the two leading presidential candidates on migration could hardly be more different. Conservative candidate, Ivan Duque, ex-President Alvaro Uribe's political companion and candidate for "Centro Democratico," wants to tighten security along the more than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) of Colombia's border with Venezuela.

Ivan Duque (Getty Images/R. Arboleda)

Colombia's presidential candidate for the Democratic Center Party, Ivan Duque, wants to tighten the country's border security

Left-wing liberal Gustavo Petro, former mayor of Bogota and candidate for the "Progressive Movement," has been calling for a non-bureaucratic absorption of refugees. "Venezuela is under a dictatorship that is devastating for the people. The Colombian government's first duty is to help Venezuelans,” he told the daily El País.

President Juan Manuel Santos' current government has been trying to control migration from neighboring Venezuela for the last year. In May 2017, Santos sent his security advisor, Juan Carlos Restrepo, to Turkey to visit refugee camps and learn about the EU-Turkey refugee agreement.

Refugee crisis deepening existing tensions

What is already clear is that the effects of Venezuela's crisis have become a problem for the whole region. Many Venezuelan refugees have been traveling on from Colombia to Ecuador, Panama, Chile, Peru and Brazil. Official figures show that more than 286,000 Venezuelans crossed the Rumichaca Bridge, the main highway passage between Colombia and Ecuador, in the first five months of this year alone.

German politician Kurt Beck of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has described the refugee issue as "palpable." He recently traveled to Colombia to find out about the peace process in his capacity as chairman of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), which is also represented in the country. "The refugee crisis is part of Colombian society's never-ending disunity," he told DW. "The refugees are exacerbating problems already being faced by impoverished Colombians."

Read more: An overview of Colombia's delicate peace process

And yet the future of the historic peace agreement remains an important election issue, despite the Latin American refugee crisis. Both leading candidates, Ivan Duque, currently leading polls with 37 percent, and Gustavo Petro, 10 percent behind him, have been critical of the agreement.

Children in a slum in Bogota (Getty Images/AFP/R. Arboleda)

A slum in Bogota: Colombia's poor want the new president to prioritize their well-being

'Now it's our turn'

"I have been asked time and again how Germany managed to successfully rebuild after 1945 and after reunification," Beck said. "It is therefore essential to repeatedly stress that a process of reconciliation can be successfully completed even coming from a very difficult situation."

But for presidential nominee Petro, an end to the civil war does not mean peace will be guaranteed. "To achieve real peace, we must negotiate not only with guerrillas, but with society as a whole about land distribution, healthcare, education and justice,” he told the Colombian press.

He seems to have hit a nerve among the people. According to Hubert Gehring, many Colombians would like to see more investment in social programs, education and health. "Colombians have been saying ‘it's our turn now, not the 8,000 former FARC guerrillas.'"

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