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Creative Solutions for Refugees in South America

Since 2017, Venezuelans have been fleeing the country, escaping a combination of hyperinflation, lack of food and water, and government violence. In response to this large influx of over six million refugees all throughout South America, Colombia and Brazil have adopted unique measures. Instead of resisting immigration, they’ve supported refugees and welcomed them with open arms. What kind of measures have Brazil and Colombia adopted and what can we learn from them?


In 2018, the Federal Government of Brazil initiated “Operation Welcome,” a voluntary relocation program to support refugees and migrants coming into Brazil. 

The basics of Operation Welcome

Operation Welcome rests upon three main ideas. First, the Brazilian government works to ensure efficient border management. As of 2023, there are approximately 800,000 Venezuelans who have entered Brazil. Operation Welcome provides refugees with proper reception, identification, and basic medical care. For support in managing the border, Brazil sought help from the international community, inviting the International Organization for Migration (IOM). IOM helps in verifying refugees’ and migrants’ identities and providing health checkups.

Second, Operation Welcome is concerned with welcoming refugees in Brazil’s border cities, as the name implies. Refugees are provided food, education, health and psychological care, and social protection. 

Finally, a key step in the operation is the economic opportunity it provides. IOM works with the Brazilian government to search for job vacancies and arrange for transportation to various other cities in Brazil, where they’re matched up with a new job. Refugees are also encouraged to work in Roraima and become self-sufficient.

View from Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil.

Brazil also provides a “Passport for Education,” a kit consisting of bilingual education booklets with cultural information about Brazil and guides on how to enroll in Brazil’s public schools. Even during COVID-19, Brazil was able to adapt its procedures to continue to support Venezuelan refugees and migrants.

As of 2021, Operation Welcome had managed to find work, schooling, and opportunity for over 256,000 refugees, of which 87% are families. While not yet managing to address all migrants, Brazil has accounted for over 32% of Venezuelans entering Brazil, almost a third.

What we learn from Brazil’s refugee policy

Instead of creating large, unsustainable refugee camps, Brazil has preferred to integrate Venezuelans into the local region. Rather than refusing to grant identification and work permits to Venezuelans, Brazil gave them the right to seek economic opportunity quickly. Instead of confining Venezuelans to the border, Brazil let them fully integrate into the country. 

So, what is the key takeaway? Brazil didn’t resist Venezuelan immigration—they embraced it. Now, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have found new lives, are self-sufficient and independent, and contribute to the Brazilian economy. Brazil’s programs show firsthand how refugees are a valuable part of the community, and that if we embrace them, we can better address the displacement crisis.


Colombia faces a more difficult-to-manage influx of refugees and migrants. It’s estimated that over 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants came to Colombia in 2017. However, just like Brazil, Colombia practiced a policy of integration.

Colombia invests in infrastructure that supports refugees and migrants.

Colombia had initially refused to build traditional refugee camps for fear of slowing down Venezuelans’ integration into the country. However, Maicao, the main region bordering Venezuela, eventually became overwhelmed, and the Colombian government was forced to call in UNHCR for support. Nevertheless, the camp in Maicao is far from a traditional refugee camp. In fact, its inhabitants are only allowed a temporary stay, typically for a few months, but are given all the tools necessary to stay in Colombia and find employment or move on to another country. Venezuelans are also encouraged to reunite and live with family members present in Colombia.

During this time, Colombia has worked to improve infrastructure in its border regions to support refugees. In 2019, it approved the “Second Fiscal Sustainability, Competitiveness, and Migration Development Policy Financing” (DPF) program. Its goal was to modernize government policies and extend the reach of Colombia’s National Employment Agency, allowing over 115,000 Venezuelans to access its services. It granted over 281,000 migrants a temporary stay status.

Colombia’s next project, “Improving Quality of Health Care Services and Efficiency in Colombia,” improved health infrastructure in border regions and enrolled over 200,000 Venezuelans in Colombia’s national healthcare programs.

Additionally, the “Colombia: Resilient and Inclusive Housing Project” improved housing infrastructure and access to housing for refugees and migrants.

Streets of Cartanega, Colombia.

Colombia helps refugees and migrants integrate

In 2021, Colombia extended temporary protected status for 10 years to over 1 million Venezuelans. Over half of the 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants in the country received access to social services and a pathway to a residency visa. This represents a major humanitarian act, especially since over half of these Venezuelans lack regular refugee status.

This move also gives Venezuelans the right to work in the Colombian economy. Up until that point, many Venezuelans were working in the informal economy, under the table. Overall, this move allowed Colombia to support the integration of Venezuelans and absorb the shock that this displacement represents.

The situation in Colombia shows the same positive benefits as in Brazil. Colombia’s policy of integration and support has allowed it to weather a much worse refugee crisis—Colombia faces almost a million more refugees and migrants than Brazil. However, these migrants have been able to find work and quickly resettle and contribute to the Colombian economy. When border regions became overwhelmed, Colombia invested money into these areas, not to further hamper border control, but to invest in the future and stability of migrants. Colombia has also embraced the displacement crisis with more positive results.

United States Policy and Title 42

Title 42 is a federal law that dates back to 1944. Back then, tuberculosis posed a major health threat to the country, and thus a law was passed to allow immigration authorities the right to deny or expel migrants that posed a health threat to the United States.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Trump Administration invoked Title 42, expelling over 2.5 million migrants at the border in total. About half of all who were encountered at the southern border in the last year were expelled under Title 42. Therefore, Title 42 virtually shut down the United States’ entire asylum system.

However, Title 42 didn’t last forever. On May 11, 2023, Title 42 expired, and the Biden Administration had to figure out how to re-order the U.S. immigration system. In the months leading up to its expiration date, immigration authorities began to prepare for the resulting influx of migrants. Now that the border was accepting migrants again, many more would come.

The Biden Administration post-Title 42

In response, the Biden Administration announced in April 2023 the opening of new processing centers outside of the United States, organized by the IOM and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The first two centers will open in Guatemala and Colombia, with others expected to follow. In short, these processing centers aim to quickly screen migrants and asylum claims in Central and South America instead of having them arrive at the U.S. border. This new plan works in conjunction with Canadian and Spanish immigration authorities, with both countries saying they would accept migrants processed at these centers. If migrants at the border are found to qualify for asylum, they will legally be flown into these countries.

However, this new plan also means stiffer penalties. The Biden Administration plans to process asylum seekers at the border in mere days with the goal of swift deportations if migrants don’t meet the necessary criteria. Those who are expelled from the U.S. would be unable to return to apply for asylum for five years. The Administration also said that it plans to crack down on asylum-seekers who pass through another country without first seeking protection there.

Supporting Refugees and Migrants Works

Brazil and Colombia welcomed migrants and gave them opportunities to integrate into their local economy. They gave migrants who didn’t have legal status papers, supported their enrollment in schools, helped them find work, and treated them like valued community members. There’s always something to be learned from other countries, and while Brazil and Colombia have different economies, governments, security measures and other mitigating factors, their approach to the global displacement crisis provides unique insight. What might we take away from their approaches?

As we work to welcome refugees and migrants into our community, please consider supporting World Relief and our work.


Antoine Herrbach is a 2023 Summer Intern for World Relief. He is a Senior at Gonzaga University, studying Political Science, History, and Economics.

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