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Learning from Colombia’s Inclusive Approach to Migration

| 5 Minute Read
Peace, Stability, and Transition
Gender Equality and Social Inclusion | Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Minority Groups
By recognizing and supporting the idea that migration represents a significant opportunity for societal strengthening, the Government of Colombia is making strides in migrant integration.

Globally, the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes now exceeds a record 100 million people. Many cross borders to flee from conflict, violence, insecurity, or persecution – bravely facing challenges like language or cultural differences in search of stability, safety, and opportunity. Examples include migrants, inclusive of refugees and asylum seekers, leaving Ukraine, Syria, Central American countries, Afghanistan, and more. Countries receiving migrants (receptors) are typically underprepared to cope with a sudden inflow of vulnerable persons with profound needs. The reality is that receptor communities face extraordinary tasks that strain resources and risk fraying social cohesion, particularly when migrant movements are layered onto an already complex set of challenges, from fighting corruption and navigating COVID-19 to delivering basic services and building resilient local economies in weakening economic conditions. Furthermore, policy responses and socio-political rhetoric toward migration directly impact migrants’ well-being.

How Colombia is Doing Things Differently 

A Colombian government representative speaks to migrants at a service fair.
A Colombia Nos Une representative supports Colombian returnees at a service fair in Cartagena. Photo by Norberto González, Social Emergency Program, Cartagena Mayoral Office.

In sharp contrast with many national anti-immigration postures worldwide, the Government of Colombia has taken a welcoming approach to one of the largest mass migrations in recent history. Of the almost 7 million Venezuelans that have fled social, economic, and political hardship, approximately 2.5 million now reside in Colombia – in addition to Colombian returnees that have returned from Venezuela. They join an already complex migration context, where over 5 million Colombians remain internally displaced from the fifty-year armed conflict, ongoing criminal violence, and natural disasters. Additionally, migrants coming from Venezuela often deal with challenges like irregular migration status, joblessness, gender-based violence, and exploitation by employers, landlords, human traffickers, and armed groups. Those not registered with the country’s public migration institutions remain invisible and unable to access the support they need (e.g., health, education, justice) to gain a stable foothold in their adopted homeland.

The Colombian national government’s open embrace of migration presents a courageous set of political and policy choices that seeks to make these migrants visible and incorporate them into society. In support of this effort, the USAID-funded Venezuela Response and Integration (VRI) Activity helps the Colombian government systematically turn integration-related migration policy into practice and strengthen social cohesion.

Implementing Inclusive Migration Programming: Lessons Learned

Harness data to drive delivery. While the Colombian national government’s inclusive stance on migration is a powerful macro influence, each migrant’s lived reality is distinctly micro. Resource, capacity, and political challenges vary dramatically by municipality and even neighborhood, where data on the presence of irregular and unregistered migrants remains unreliable at best, hampering institutions’ and implementing partners’ ability to effectively target services. Meanwhile, social dynamics and perceptions around services and opportunities within receptor communities further complicate how public systems engage with migrants. By triangulating multiple data points, VRI helps localities target interventions to communities with the highest concentrations of migrants. Beginning with secondary resources such as public census data, VRI visually maps population distribution and poverty statistics and then verifies and updates it through primary sources (social mapping, aerial photos, surveys at service fairs, etc.), with the support of civil society, government, and private sector partners. VRI then homes in on areas with the most vulnerable migrants that may be ‘invisible’ to social service providers due to irregular migration status to strategically intervene and improve their access to services. Interventions reach both migrants and receptor community members, fostering shared access to strengthened services, as well as interactions that can enhance social cohesion and help alleviate tensions surrounding migration at a micro level.

Apply politically aware programming to spark a whole-of-community response. Complex sociopolitical realities and interests form the undercurrents that help determine the extent to which integration policies succeed or fall short. Current national policies are welcoming and municipal leadership is broadly supportive in most high-density migrant cities, but national, regional, municipal, and even neighborhood leadership changes may well mean that support for migrant-friendly policies will wane in certain places over time. To capitalize on the present opportunity and also manage this future uncertainty, VRI has adapted USAID’s Local Systems Framework to understand and analyze nine target areas’ political economies as a “system” of diverse actors. Applying lessons from our other programs like USAID Mexico Juntos para la Prevención de la Violencia and Colombia Human Resources for Health 2030, VRI measures the relative functionality of each local system using the Carnegie Mellon Capability Maturity Model to capture actors’ individual and shared incentives and perceptions. This information complements data on the five dimensions of the Local Systems Framework (results, roles, relationships, rules, and resources). Gleaning this data serves a dual purpose: it provides VRI staff in each area an entry point to engage key partners early and often while also providing them with a more rigorous, nuanced understanding of key issues that prepares them to operate “with the grain.” VRI then iteratively adjusts activities that support multi-sectoral coordination, infusing behavioral science to help build capacity for long-term champions of change and helping local actors avoid siloes or duplication of efforts. Effective systems coordination results in tailored tools that move the needle on integration. For example, VRI facilitates migration roundtables to convene multi-sectoral decision-makers to facilitate inclusive, gender-sensitive local policies and target resources that fill service gaps pinpointed by the data.

I want to thank the Intégrate Center in Cúcuta for all the advice they have given me and my family, especially the National Training Service for its employment information. Through them, in less than a month, we were able to get a job, which is very important to improve the quality of our lives.

Venezuelan migrant

Meet migrants where they are. Systems thinking and data provide the tools to coordinate actors to target services that tangibly improve the livelihoods of migrants and receptor communities. VRI and its partners do so through Intégrate Centers (a play on Spanish verbiage integrarse, to integrate oneself). The Centers are elevated one-stop-shops, drawing on learning from past holistic outreach and support experiences for vulnerable populations like the Comprehensive Victim Support and Reparation Unit, that put a wide range of integration services at migrants’ fingertips. Services include ready entry points for migrants to obtain regular migration status, seek employment, and engage with differentiated services like support to LGBTQI+, Indigenous, or differently abled persons. As a system, public and private actors like mayoral offices and business associations, civil society organizations, and USAID and other donor-funded programs work together to support the Centers. These partners raise awareness of the Centers through communications campaigns and service fairs with on-the-spot temporary protection status and social security registration, as well as COVID-19 vaccinations. In the first five months, the fairs alone reached 13,191 people.

Emerging Results for the International Community

Colombia has provided both humanitarian leadership in crisis but also laid the groundwork for a long-term scenario in which migration becomes not only a crisis to be managed, but a net positive for Colombia socially, culturally, and economically as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. While progress on integration continues to unfold in Colombia, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called the country’s steps to integration, “an extraordinary example to the region and world.” So far, data mapping, systems thinking, and intentional, differentiated service outreach have proven necessary – and effective – to promote integration. VRI will continue to offer up lessons and results to the development community to help promote inclusive approaches to migration worldwide.

Banner image caption: Representatives from gender- and vulnerable group-focused secretariats in Medellín, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta, and Medellín, USAID representatives, and VRI team members meet with Cúcuta Intégrate Center staff to review and strengthen gender and social inclusion activities. Photo by USAID/VRI.

Posts on the blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics. 

About Molly Burns

Molly Burns is Senior Manager for the USAID Venezuela Response and Integration (VRI) activity in Chemonics’ Latin America and the Caribbean division.

About Juan Anibal Sosa Iglesias

Juan Anibal is a senior project management associate in Chemonics’ Latin America and Caribbean Division.

A professional headshot of Juan Barco.

About Juan Barco

Juan is an expert in social policy, with over 14 years of experience working on the implementation and evaluation of Colombian national policies to overcome extreme poverty. He currently serves as the Deputy Chief of Party – Technical for the $40 million USAID/Colombia Migration Management Activity, the first task order under the Venezuela Response Integration…