Roxana Bautista was worried about the health of her six-month-old baby, Keyner. He had been coughing for days, and the previous night he had a fever. Bautista, 20, lives in Rubio, a town in western Venezuela. But trips across the Colombian border – a one-hour bus or taxi ride away – have become routine. Keyner was born in Cúcuta, a frontier city in northeastern Colombia that has become not just a first waystation for those leaving Venezuela, but also a vital lifeline for many who remain behind, especially young and would-be mothers seeking medical care.
Almost five million people have fled Venezuela’s economic and political meltdown since 2015. And now thousands of Venezuelan parents like Bautista, who have a child born in Colombia, are queuing up every month, just in Cúcuta, to register their offspring as Colombian citizens so that they can access public services like healthcare and education.
“There are no drugs in Venezuela, no vaccines,” said Bautista, as she waited in line at a health centre in La Parada, the first neighbourhood of Cúcuta you come to after crossing the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that spans the Táchira River and links the two countries.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, offers basic healthcare services here, as do a host of other humanitarian organisations, including the Colombian Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Profamilia, a Colombian NGO.
When The New Humanitarian visited in October, Bautista was looking forward to 20 December: this is when she had an appointment at the Colombian National Registry to officially obtain Keyner’s citizenship.
Keyner was born at the Erasmo Meoz University Hospital in Cúcuta in June. Bautista told TNH she would not have been attended to properly at the public hospital in San Cristóbal, the main city near Rubio in Venezuela. “They don’t give you any medication and the standard of treatment is bad,” she said. “There are almost no doctors at the hospital.”
The economic crisis in Venezuela has deeply weakened the healthcare system. Drugs and medical staff are in chronically short supply, and patients often need to buy everything for their procedures themselves on the black market, from plastic gloves to gauzes.
The Colombian government estimates that over 27,000 babies like Keyner have been stuck in a legal limbo since the crisis in Venezuela worsened in 2015.
The Colombian constitution establishes that only babies with at least one Colombian parent or whose parents have legal residence in the country are eligible for citizenship.
But for thousands of Venezuelans fleeing their country, obtaining Venezuelan nationality for babies born abroad has also become increasingly difficult. They are often left without the appropriate paperwork or cannot obtain documentation once they are out of the country due to the lack of Venezuelan embassies and consulates in many countries. This put tens of thousands of babies at risk of becoming stateless.
Aware of the growing scale of the problem – as more children are being born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia every year – the Colombian government passed a decree in August 2019 allowing such children to obtain citizenship. The decree applies to all babies born between 19 August, 2015 and two years after the law was passed: August 2021.
Despite struggling with its own internal displacement – it has the second largest number of IDPs in the world, after Syria – Colombia, unlike some other countries in the region, has kept its doors open to Venezuelans, accepting the biggest influx: over 1.5 million. (...)