Abstract: Venezuelan Walking Migrants ("Los Caminantes") in Colombia: Humanitarian Crisis, Shelter Development, and Divided Civil Society (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Venezuelan Walking Migrants ("Los Caminantes") in Colombia: Humanitarian Crisis, Shelter Development, and Divided Civil Society

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
René Olate, PhD, Associate Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Dianne Ciro, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA
María Piñeros-Leaño, PhD, Assistant Professor, Boston College, MA
Magali Alba-Niño, MSW, Director Social Work Department, Universidad Simon Bolivar, Universidad Simon Bolivar, Cucuta, Colombia
BACKGROUND & PURPOSE: Venezuela has produced the third highest number of migrants and refugees in recent history, behind only Syria and Afghanistan. Since 2015, four million Venezuelans have left their country, approximately 35% of them are in Colombia (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - UNHCR, International Organization of Migration - IOM). A myriad of intertwined social, economic, and political factors characterized by a systematic violation of human rights and a deepening humanitarian emergency has prompted millions of Venezuelans to flee. A significant percentage of Venezuelan migrants travel on foot down mountain highways with hopes of reaching the Colombian capital, Bogotá, and other destinations across Latin America. The objectives of the study are a) identify the needs and capabilities of the caminantes in their search for a new home, b) understand the development of shelters across the "Caminantes" route within two Colombian departments (Norte de Santander and Santander), c) Identify the mental models allocated in the Colombian civil society regarding the Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

METHODS: Guided by the theories of human needs and capabilities (Sen, Nussbaum) at individual level, implementation of the shelters following the absorptive capacity perspective (Zahra, George) at organizational level, and the innovation and civil society theories (the International Civil Society Centre) at society level, this qualitative research follows a case study design. In-depth semi-structured interviews and focus groups were utilized. Sixteen leaders of the shelters in the departments of Norte de Santander and Santander were interviewed. Six focus groups were convened with a total of 48 "caminantes". Four high-level categories were identified for the focus group participants: a) solo caminante, b) women and children caminante, c) partners and children caminante, d) friends caminantes.

RESULTS: The immediate basic needs of the caminantes were food, water, clothing and shelter. The capabilities suggested by the caminantes included bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; and emotions. Shelters were developed by international and national organizations as well as by local civil society initiatives. The role of innovation in the development of the shelters is highlighted by the leaders of these organizations. The level of formality and results varied greatly among the shelters. Colombian civil society is extremely divided regarding the Caminantes while some express solidarity and welcoming a significant group has anti-immigrant feelings. These civil society feelings are associated with the level of poverty of the caminantes.

CONCLUSIONS & IMPLICATIONS: Several policy recommendations and intervention strategies were identified.The intertwined political, economic, and humanitarian crises in Venezuela show no signs of decreasing. However, the COVID-19 opens a new scenario in this complex context.