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Colombia's President Discusses How 1.8 Million Refugees Could Change His Country


We have an update on one of the world's major refugee crises. The flow of millions of people out of Venezuela has dropped out of U.S. headlines but remains an ongoing reality. One-point-eight million refugees are living in nearby Colombia, which is officially welcoming them. Just by way of comparison, the United States just increased the number of refugees it will take next year to 125,000. Colombia, a much smaller country, has taken that 1.8 million in a few years of Venezuela's political and economic calamity next door. We spoke with Colombia's President Ivan Duque during a visit to Washington.

Are that many refugees for a period of years now permanently changing your country?

PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE: Well, Steve, I think the most important thing is that Colombia and Venezuela have a long brotherhood. We're actually, this year, celebrating 200 years since our first constitution - there was a joint constitution called the Cucuta Constitution. And also in the 20th century, when we had many problems, Venezuela received with open arms thousands of Colombians. So now their people are leaving the country. What we have done is to provide a temporary protection status to almost 1.8 million migrants, and we're doing this with a technology that allows us to have biometric recognition, allow the people to be able to search for a job, to have health care and other services. People that have migrated, due to these reasons, tend to stay longer in countries, so that's why we want them to be visible, to feel part and also to contribute to economic and social development.

And we've also making a big call to the international community. And I say this bluntly because when we evaluate what the international community has granted, for example, in the Syrian crisis, it has been something close to $3,000 per migrant. When it comes to this case, it doesn't get even two, $300. So we have taken a lot of the fiscal burden. We hope that the international community will be able to disburse with rapidness what they have already committed.

INSKEEP: Of the 1.8 million, roughly how many are in what we would recognize as camps, and how many have simply become residents of your cities?

DUQUE: We don't have camps in the traditional way of attending refugees because what we have done since the beginning is we have some temporary facilities so that we can provide basic attention and health. But people are already deployed around the country. And actually, the way we decided to grant the temporary protection status is because we were seeing a lot of unfair situations. For example, people were hired, and they were paid below the Colombian workers not with the same rights, and people tried to take advantage of that in some places. So that's why once people regularize and they receive their temporary protection status, they have basically the same labor rights as the Colombian citizens, and that's positive.

And I have to say something, Steve. In our country, the constitution has an article - that is Article 100. And it basically says that foreigners in Colombia will have the same rights as Colombians. So we're making this objective of our constitution to become a reality.

INSKEEP: Do you have to assume that a very large number of those refugees will never go back to Venezuela?

DUQUE: That could be so. I have to accept it. That could be so. Nothing guarantees that they will go back. And especially when you have people that have migrated for the kind of reasons that they have migrated to Colombia, that kind of migration stays for more than 10 years. That's what the experts have said in the evaluations that they have made on different crises of this magnitude.

INSKEEP: Many other countries around the world that have taken in refugees have ultimately faced some political backlash, even countries like Germany, to think of another country that took in more than a million refugees from Syria. They eventually had some political consequences. Do you anticipate, at some point, a backlash to this number of people in your country?

DUQUE: Something that I consider has been very positive in the case of Colombia is that in many other countries, we saw that their reaction had a lot of xenophobic sentiments. In our case, when we made the decision, what was important is that the private sector supported it, the governors supported it and the mayors also did the same thing. But I also have to be blunt, Steve, and it's - this cannot happen forever. We can't keep on assuming this kind of fraternal policy is forever because it demands on our resources, and I think the international community has maybe made very important commitments. But we haven't seen the disbursements at the pace we should.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, some people will recall that your predecessor in office negotiated a peace agreement with communist rebels, which was an effort to end a many-decades-old war in Colombia. There is that peace agreement, but some people, we're told, did not turn in their weapons. There are reports that violence has increased, especially in rural areas. We even followed this news that someone opened fire on your own helicopter when you were traveling over the summer. What's going wrong?

DUQUE: There are people - and I think that's the majority of people that turn to weapons - and they are in the process of reincorporation. But nevertheless, there are people who never made a bet for peace, that keep on trafficking drugs that are linked to criminal networks, and especially they're linked to criminal networks in Venezuela. And one of the kingpins of those groups was the one who tried to attempt on my life. But we have been fighting them with all our capacity, and we are dismantling those organizations, and we're not going to rest.

INSKEEP: Somewhere in my house here I've got a volume of journalism by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I think I bought in Bogota. And he writes in a couple of the articles about rebels in the 1960s, rebels in the 1980s. And it seemed that this was over, but here we are with violent incidents in the 2020s. What does that mean for your country that it has faced this violence for such a long period of time?

DUQUE: Colombia has had a history of violence that we want to turn the page. But one of the things that we have learned is that when people kidnap, when people recruit children and people commit so many wrongdoings, the important thing is that there's real justice. The absence of justice and punishment for those conducts (ph) only generates more violence. So I think that is the lesson that we have learned, and that's why I strongly believe that we can never go back to the idea of providing amnesties or to providing protection for those who were the kingpins and were the leaders who committed the worst crimes in our history.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks for your time. I enjoyed talking with you.

DUQUE: Steve, thank you so much. It has been a great pleasure, and I look forward to seeing you in Colombia pretty soon.

INSKEEP: I hope so. Ojala. That'd be great.

DUQUE: Ojala.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "IGUAZU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.