Course:GEOG352/2020/South-South Migration in Bogotá, Colombia

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In the boom and bust cycle of the free market and political uncertainties, socioeconomic downfall is an inevitable force that pushes citizens to seek wellbeing in differing urban centres which offer prosperity. Migrants that are forced to relocate usually are of low socioeconomic status and have been the most affected by economic turmoil. Urban centres offer infrastructure which allows for easy access to public services and basic necessities. Migrants voyage specifically to neighbouring countries in the Global South because of lax laws surrounding entry, shared history, therefore, common language and culture, and close proximity that reduce the cost of travel. South to south migrants are often vulnerable to unsafe living conditions. Furthermore, they’re more likely to receive irregular flows of income based on their job and to be expelled from their host country due to illegal border crossing. Understanding migration within the Global South is an important tool for governments to use in policy making around unprotected displaced peoples because migration, growth and development are closely related. It serves as an important phenomenon in development so that migration laws and social services in Latin America and other areas pertaining to the global south can provide for the needs of vulnerable groups thus increasing the quality of life for all citizens.

File:Bogota Skyline.jpg
Downtown, Bogotá, Distrito Capital, Colombia. * Population: 7.413 million (2018) * Official language: Spanish * Continent: South America * Elevation: 2,640 m (8,660 ft) * HDI: 0.794 * GDP per capita: USD 17, 500


Forced Migration

Forced migration refers to the displacement of a population due to disastrous events which result in social disorder and suffering. Categorized as asylum seekers first then refugees if their claims are accepted, those who suffer from life-threatening circumstances or a reduced quality of life tend to relocate to more stable regions within their country or to a foreign country entirely. As a majority of refugees today originate from the global south, their optimal destination tends to be countries within the global north due to existing social stability and an array of economic opportunities. However, originating from the global south, economic constraints and the lack of official documents tends to avert a large volume of refugee movement from their home country to a host country in the global north. Thus, south to south migration is observed during refugee crises globally with an emphasis on migration into neighbouring Global South countries which share a physical land border accounting for 80% of south to south migration (Ratha & Shaw, 2007).

A Venezuelan family crossing the Colombia-Venezuela border on foot.

Forced Displacement Applied to Bogotá

Currently, mankind is experiencing its highest levels of displacement on record (UNHCR, 2019). Forced migration is a prevalent issue in the global south due to political instability which produces widespread violence, economic mismanagement and civil disorder. Refugees are a product of domestic conflict interests; however, the severity of the conflict is amplified by the numerous interests of competing global political powers (O'Connor, 2019). As the world is becoming more economically and politically intertwined, the examination of its by-product, forced displacement, is of utmost importance as it directly affects the quality of life of those within the global south.

Understanding the political, social and economic implications of forced migration is particularly important to Bogota as the Venezuelan refugee crisis is the largest occurrence in Latin American history. Colombia has received the largest portion of Venezuelan refugees with its capital city Bogotá hosting the highest volume. The large population of refugees results in changes to existing socio-economic structures as resources are diverted for refugee accommodation and cultural differences are taken into consideration. Social changes, such as an increase in criminal activity, can also result from the arrival refugee populations (BBC News, 2018). Hence forced displacement is a crucial topic to consider as Colombia has itself suffered from a great deal of criminal activity during the 1970s up to the 1990s.

The Importance

The economic and social impacts of south to south migration tend to differ to that of South to North migration. Nations within the Global North such as the United States often suffer shortages in blue-collar labour (Campbell, 2019) indicating that migration from the Global South can be beneficial to the workforce of the Global North. This contrasts nations within the Global South as such nations often have a sizeable number of low-skilled workers in sectors such as agriculture – meaning that an influx of low skilled workers can lead to an increased rate of unemployment. A large proportion of blue-collared workers also indicates a country's stage of development and expenditure on health services. With the theme of forced migration in mind, refugees often arrive to host countries with low economic power and tend to rely on political assistance in order to obtain the bare necessities such as medical assistance and accommodation.

Bogotá: A Case Study

In 2015, Colombia received 62,000 permanent immigrants with 9,000 coming from Venezuela which made up about 15% of the total inflows of foreign population, the highest as seen in Figure 1. Though this number is close to the rate of immigrating American citizens, unlike American migrants, Venezuelans pose concerns to the government and institutions as they are in urgent need of basic necessities. Over the years, this rate has consistently risen and the number is not certain as many are undocumented for. Additionally, the data does not account for the rapidly evolving dynamic of Venezuelan migration.

Figure 1. is an illustration of the percentage of total inflows of foreign populations to Colombia in the year 2015 in yellow compared to the time period of 2011-14. Source: OECD (2019), (International Migration Outlook 2019),

Large-scale migration from Venezuela has been a recurring migration pattern in the Colombia since 2015. According to Migration Columbia, in 2018 there were 1.17 million Venezuelans in the country with 22% settled in the Capital District (D.C.) of Bogotá (International Migration Outlook, 2019). However, the vast majority of migrants choose urban centres, Bogotá D.C being the most popular, for settlement  (Ordóñez and Arcos, 2019). Due to the profound socioeconomic and political crisis in Venezuela circa the 2015, Venezuelans have been forced to flee their homeland in search of wellbeing abroad.

Venezuelan migration is attributed to their shared colonial history as they were once part of the same country under the Spanish Empire and a common land border that migrants almost always traverse by foot. Colombia’s internal armed conflict caused many Colombians to seek refuge in Venezuela in the 1990s and 2000s (Ordóñez and Arcos, 2019). In return, Colombia has opened its borders to Venezuelans. “Colombia is a country that starts immigrating—it never receives,” said José David Caña Pérez, a leader of a migrant refuge in the border city of Cúcuta (Janetsky, 2019). This quote captures the essence of the shift in migrant patterns in Colombia as it presents an atypical phenomenon in the history of migration throughout Latin America (Franco-Lópezand Suaza-Argáez, 2019).

The Urban Centre

Based on data surrounding the identity of migrants in Bogotá D.C., most are Venezuelan and are made up of young families and lone men. In a survey of 581 migrants, 47.7% were between nineteen and thirty-nine years of age and 32.5% were below nineteen years of age (Ordóñez and Arcos, 2019). One study highlights the motivations of migrants as “young families striving to establish themselves and find economic stability and social benefits such as health and education for their children” (Ordóñez and Arcos, 2019). On the other hand, another study reports the trend of Venezuelan men who are the first ones in their family to leave their homeland aiming to send back remittances to their families in Venezuela for basic necessities (Franco-López and Suaza-Argáez, 2019). Both scenarios expose the harsh reality that migrants face in Bogotá D.C. in terms of family displacement and re-employment.

Figure 2. Inferred monthly number of Venezuelans living in different cities between 2014 and 2017. Source: development from the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Exterior Relations) 2017 in Franco-López, J. A. & Suaza-Argáez, N. (2019).

It is important to note that most migrants choose urban centres as their destinations for settlement as they offer a concentration of infrastructure and access public services. From 2014 to 2017, Bogotá hosted 53.71% of the total number of Venezuelans in Colombia behind other urban centres and has substantially risen in 2017 following the start of the Venezuelan Crisis. Displayed in Figure 2 , the capital city functions as a centre for migrants who choose it as a place of resettlement or as a destination for future travels serving as an urban conglomerate due to having the highest quantity of resettled persons in the country (Franco-López and Suaza-Argáez, 2019).

The Effects

An informal settlement in Bogotá

Migrants with minimal financial means are the most vulnerable to poor health and quality of life. As a result, governmental agencies are under pressure to provide for the large scale of unprecedented Venezuelan immigration and urgent need. For instance, at the Instituto Materno Infantil in Bogotá D.C., a gynecologist estimates that 20% of mothers treated are Venezuelans, most of whom present complications or increased risks in their pregnancies (Daniels, 2019). She sees regular cases of renal problems, malnutrition and sexually transmitted diseases amongst them, adding that the situation is complicated by the informal mode of entry in which these migrants took. Consequently, they lack the documentation needed to have public health services provided to them beyond emergency care, where such patients require multiple hospital visits for their illnesses . This is a prime example of the strain on institutions to provide for the basic need for healthcare amongst vulnerable migrants. In May, 2019, the Colombia’s constitutional court ruled that the state is obliged to provide healthcare to children born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia, however, the ruling failed to address the need for parents themselves to access necessary healthcare (Daniels, 2019).

Illicit activity is born out of dire circumstances, displaced migrants with little means of sustaining oneself often resort to such desperate measures. As Venezuelan refugees tend to settle in poor and dangerous neighbourhoods, many of which were one-time land invasions, they enter into informal agreements of rent and labour which result in exploitation and precariousness (Ordóñez and Arcos, 2019). Sexually transmitted ailments are also prevalent in migrant populations. Women who resort to prostitution in the city slums in particular fall victim to such ailments as the need to provide food and shelter for themselves and their children often overshadows the risks involved in sex work. Increases in crime rates across Colombia (both real and perceived) combined with the politicization of Venezuela’s crisis has resulted in xenophobia towards Venezuelans (Ordóñez and Arcos, 2019). Though Colombia had been historically riddled with crime, it is true that the desperation of some, though not all, has resulted in violence in order to acquire basic necessities such as food. For the time being, these are generally, the short-term effects of immigration of vulnerable populations. The long term effects are still unavailable due to the relatively recent development of the phenomenon (Ordóñez and Arcos, 2019).

The Government’s Response: A Solution

The unexpected large settlement of vulnerable migrants into Bogotá has presented issues of governance and security over the past four years. In order to facilitate displaced migrants, the Colombian government has formulated policies to normalize undocumented migrants and to provide for their needs. A Special Stay Permit was created in  response to the influx of Venezuelan migrants in particular who entered before November 29th, 2019. It allows them to remain in the country for the next two years with access to basic rights (“International Migration Outlook, 2019). The effort becomes complicated as it only applies to Venezuelan citizens who have stamped passports. Subsequently, it does not alleviate the burden on the most vulnerable migrants who enter the country without documentation. It is not uncommon that many do not even have a passport due to the difficulty of acquiring one in Venezuela in a time of turmoil. In addition, the two year time period frames large-scale Venezuelan migration directly linked to the crisis as a temporary emergency though the circumstances in Venezuela may not facilitate the return of its expatriates in the near future.

Lessons Learned

Migration in Bogotá D.C. and Colombia as a whole is characterized by a large and unexpected inflow of vulnerable Venezuelan refugees over the last 4 years. As discussed in the case study above, two major problems have emerged due to the massive influx of Venezuelan immigrants. The first problem is the lack of basic healthcare available in Bogotá, especially to those who have become ill due to poor conditions in which they endured. The second issue is the increased rate of crime, predominantly caused by those with low socio-economic power. As a means of combating these issues, some of the lessons learned from the case study can and should be applied to other urban cities that experience an unprecedented flow of large-scale refugees.


Firstly, to alleviate these issues, the municipal government can designate certain areas for refugees which are not in close proximity to urban centers in the Global South. Such a measure will ensure a more balanced distribution of social services available as well as a significant decrease in crime. Additionally, simplifying the regularization process could be deemed appropriate as many immigrants enter through informal and complex means that are typically illegal but done so out of pure desperation to survive. Land border security must adopt a way of identifying refugees that lack documentation and/or a passport in order for them to be included in the humanitarian programs that aim to help vulnerable populations. Lastly, governments within the Global South should be aware that the lack of proper documentation can act as a barrier in providing basic social services and protection. This phenomenon is much more likely to occur during South-South migration where many refugees enter by foot compared to the process of airline travel where documentation is required.


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