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Opinion: Colombia Should Welcome Afghan Refugees With Open Arms

The Arrival Of Haitians, Venezuelans And Afghans Poses A Huge Migration Challenge For Colombia.

Afghanistan Family

Colombia will serve as a safe third country while the immigration situation with the North American country is resolved. Photo: Reuters

LatiAmerican Post | Santiago Gómez Hernández

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Leer en español: Opinión: la llegada de los afganos a Colombia traerá muchos beneficios

Historically, Colombia has never been a host country for large migrations. With the exception of the Spanish conquest and a significant migration of Lebanese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the coffee country has dedicated itself to emigrating. Today there are large Colombian colonies in the United States, Spain, Chile, among others.

However, due to the economic, political and social crisis in Venezuela, Colombia became the second country in the world with the highest number of refugees, only behind Turkey, which receives Syrians. But that doesn't just stop there, now Colombia is also an obligatory step for thousands of migrants heading to the United States. It is already common to see Haitian and African migrants in the municipalities of the northwestern part of the country,  on their way to fulfill the American dream.

Recently, the arrival of Afghan refugees (initially 4,000 are expected) who have the visa process with the United States was made public. Colombia will serve as a safe third country while the immigration situation with the North American country is resolved. According to the Colombian Foreign Minister, Martha Lucía Ramírez, Washington will pay all the expenses of the Afghans while they are in the country.

However, these three examples show that Colombia does not have a clear immigration policy. The country has decided to let Venezuelan refugees enter, without any type of protocol or identification.

Little organization and little education regarding migration have created a hostile environment towards migrants. In the country, according to the Xenophobia Barometer, this year hate speech increased by 731%. The statements of the mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, are just the tip of the iceberg. Furthermore, social media is flooded with episodes of xenophobia by many Colombians towards Venezuelan migrants.

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That is why it is time to tackle the problem at its roots, to develop a real immigration policy. Let us take advantage of the arrival of Afghan refugees to make decisions and draw up protocols. For example, Colombia must guarantee that any refugee who enters the country must be immunized against COVID-19. Either a migrant seeking residence in Colombia or passing through. Their stay in this nation must be protected and that person must have all the protections that the Constitution guarantees.

For example, for Haitian migrants traveling from south to north, it is necessary to demarcate safe roads so that they can travel through them. We should provide them with humanitarian accommodation, food, hydration, and health posts. It is important to achieve the registration of those who enter. This makes it possible to identify vulnerable or at-risk populations, groups, and can also help to request greater aid from the international community.

Now that the refugees from Afghanistan are arriving, we have much to learn and build on. In principle, it is assumed that these will only be passing through and that they are only waiting for the confirmation of their visa process in the United States, but it is not certain how long these processes will last and what will happen if some of them are rejected. In either case, the answer is that some may be in Colombia for longer than expected, so it will be necessary to properly integrate them.  

For example, these visitors must have physical and mental medical personnel at their disposal to be able to treat them in a comprehensive way. It will also be important to give them some short Spanish classes while they are in Colombia.

Additionally, we must learn from our mistakes made with Venezuelan migrants. Educational campaigns to avoid or reduce xenophobia are a must. We must reject not migrants, but hate speech promulgated by politicians, officials, influencers or ordinary people. Islamophobia in Colombia exists, and we will have to start fighting it.

It is evident that in a country with difficulties, where the opportunities for a decent life for the locals are already scarce, migrants do not have it easy either. But understanding that migration also means an opportunity to grow, Colombia must focus on getting the most out of it.

In 2018, the World Bank highlighted that even though the massive arrival of migrants to the country represents an increase in GDP spending between 0.23 and 0.41% (perhaps more now), this will boost the national economy in the near and distant future. Cultural exchange, increased consumption and investment are reasons to receive these groups. We can also be the first contact that refugees have and leave a protocol for future moments where we will once again be a safe country for refugees.

So, let's also provide a legal path so that migrants and refugees who come to our country and intend to stay, have a clear migratory path. We will not have the possibilities that the United States, Canada, Europe or Chile itself can offer; but there are refugees with the intention of building a more diverse and better Colombia. We must welcome refugees wherever they come from, just as many other Colombians have found refuge in other nations.

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