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Venezuelan children recruited as child soldiers in Colombia

According to the UN, over 4 million Venezuelans have now fled their nation in an unprecedented exodus putting stress on nations around Latin America. Many have ended up in the impoverished Catatumbo region in Colombia’s northeast where armed groups commit serious human rights violations.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are at least 25,000 Venezuelans in the region, which is also home to several armed groups including the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

“As armed groups fight for the void left by the FARC in Catatumbo, hundreds of civilians have been caught in the conflict,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Venezuelans who are fleeing the humanitarian emergency in their own country are being caught in this nexus of war and desperate flight.”

According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, these armed groups, who effectively control illegal border crossings, have committed egregious abuses against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians including killings, intimidation, sexual violence and recruiting children as soldiers. More than 100 civilians were killed there by the battling groups in 2018 and government figures show that more than 40,000 people in Catatumbo have been displaced from their homes since 2017.

Desperate and often undocumented Venezuelans have been among those forcibly displaced and killed, and Venezuelan children have been recruited as soldiers. Children as young as 12 have been forced to join an armed group after members threaten to kill them or their families, or they join for money.

About 145,000 Colombians were freshly displaced in 2018, according to UN estimates and, despite the peace agreement that was signed between the government and FARC two years ago, the number is still above 100,000 newly displaced people per year.

“Clearly the flow is overwhelming. The flow of Venezuelans and Colombians who lived in Venezuela, paired with more armed conflict, are completely overwhelming the services of the region,” Christian Visnes, NRC’s Colombia country director, told Voice of America. “And the combination of the two is quite dangerous because it clearly can lead to xenophobia and racism.”

Isolated attacks and hate speech against Venezuelan migrants have been reported in Colombia and in other neighbouring countries, like Ecuador and Brazil, where hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have settled.

Earlier this year, Eduardo Stein, an IOM official for Venezuelan refugees and migrants, warned, “although isolated and unrepresentative, these acts of hatred, intolerance and xenophobia are extremely worrying.”

On 6 August, Colombia announced that babies born to refugees fleeing the economic crisis in Venezuela will be given the right to citizenship in Colombia. More than 24,000 children are expected to benefit from this new measure. President Duque of Colombia said that these children were the victims of a legal loophole that had left them without nationality as legislation failed to recognise citizenship based on place of birth.

“Today we support these defenceless children who want to have the right to a nationality and proudly tell them that they are Colombian,” Mr Duque said during a ceremonial signing in Bogota, the capital.

Babies born in Colombia to foreign parents have previously been issued with birth certificates, but they are not normally entitled to citizenship. If Colombia had not given the children born to Venezuelan parents the right to citizenship, they would be made stateless because the government of President Maduro has ceased to provide a consular service in Colombia and it is therefore not possible to obtain nationality from their home country.

Most western democracies refuse to recognise Mr Maduro as a legitimate ruler on the basis that he rigged last year’s elections. During his six-year rule the Venezuelan economy has shrunk by half and due to the country’s economic and political crisis, many have been forced to flee the country.

Hundreds of pregnant mothers, unable to afford food and with no access to medical care in Venezuela, have travelled across the border to give birth and now, any child born to Venezuelan parents on or after 19 August 2015 in Colombia will have the right to citizenship. The measure will grant a path for those children to obtain Colombian passports – up until August 2021, making it easier for them to access health care and education, while preventing a statelessness crisis inside the country.

“This resolution is a contribution towards regular and safe migration, which hopefully will facilitate the recognition of the fundamental rights of Venezuelan children, as well as contribute to their integration into society,” Ana Durán Salvatierra, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Colombia, said in a statement on 6 August.

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