Colombia - Trends and Characteristics of Colombian Migration Policy since the Late Twentieth Century to the Present


In comparison to other Latin American countries, the phenomenon of migration, including immigration and emigration, has not been relevant in Colombia’s history.

While in the last decades immigration has remained at its low historical levels, emigration intensified reaching up to a significant proportion of the population; 8% of Colombians live outside the country.

The literature identifies three large emigration flows that were in crescendo until the 90s, when the exit of Colombian nationals reached its maximum numbers. The first wave occurred around 1965, with an important movement towards Venezuela due to the oil boom, and towards the United States, in response to the new immigration legislation that facilitated the entry of immigrants from non-European nations. In the United States, the importance of this movement lies in that, although a small group (around 60,000 towards 1970), it set the foundations for fundamental social networks that fostered subsequent movements.

In the late 70s, the United Kingdom, in turn, offered employment programs to low-qualified workers that attracted a significant number of Colombian women to the service sector. In the 80s, the economic deceleration and subsequent increase in unemployment generated new flows, of which the main destination once again was the United States, which offered the possibility of obtaining residency as a result of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Towards the mid-90s, outward flows increased until reaching unprecedented annual volumes. Several authors point out a big difference between this flow and the previous ones. On the one hand, they indicate that while the first flows are mostly explained by reasons of attraction, favourable legislation in the United States related to the economic crisis, and escalation of violence as a result of the armed conflict in Colombia. On the other hand, this wave also differs from previous ones in terms of destination; Spain surged as a new preferred option; femininisation of flows; and the impact of remittances, both at the level of the national economy and at the level of communities of origin of the migrants.

The magnitude of this recent flow and the persistence of the phenomenon over several decades have led this to become the central axis of migration policy in the country. Although scholars of the matter insist on the need to invest in the production of better data, there are some estimates that allow the importance of Colombian movement abroad since the mid-90s to be discerned. According to Vono (2010), official data indicates that between 1996 and 2005, 1.9 million Colombians emigrated from the country. Similarly, estimates made by DANE indicate that towards 2005-2006, the number of Colombians abroad was 3 million 331 thousand 107, in other words, 8.08% of the country’s total population.

In the case of Colombia, trans-border migration acquires a significant dimension, and it is associated with forced displacement, asylum, and refuge. 

Policies in force – the current scenario

Antecedents of national migration policy

Despite Colombian emigration increasing throughout the second half of the Twentieth century and the first decade of the Twenty-First century, it is not until the 1990s that this population started to be a subject of rights and an object of attention of the Colombian State.

The policy response has been slow and gradual, and its history goes back to the government of César Gaviria (1990-1994). First of all, there is the 1991 Constitution, in which significant advances to the rights of Colombians that live outside the country were established, such as the right to nationality for the children born abroad to citizens; the right to dual nationality; a special constituency to participate in the chamber of representatives, and the obligation of the Ombudsman to guide and instruct them in the exercise and defense of their rights abroad.

Furthermore, although the presence of foreigners in the country was not significant and, according to estimates made by the United Nations, has decreased as a percentage of the population, the Constitution considers important aspects for immigrants: nationality under certain conditions (for children of foreigners residing in the country, at the request of foreigners, and Latin American and Caribbean citizens by birth residing in Colombia); enjoyment by immigrants, subject to restrictions, of the same civil rights granted to Colombians; and the possibility that they may be granted voting rights in municipal or district elections and referendums. Similarly, the status of native peoples that share bordering territories is considered, and nationality is also defined for them.

The national development plan of the Gaviria Government, that contained the guidelines for the program to connect with the community abroad, was exclusively directed towards the creation of a network of Colombian scientists and researchers that reside outside of the country. In this period Law 76/1993 was also approved, which made consular offices, with a jurisdiction exceeding 10,000 Colombian citizens, hire specialised professionals to provide legal and social guidance and assistance. In the same year, resolution 1012 created the committee for assistance of co-nationals abroad.

The government of Ernesto Samper (1994-1998) continued the migration policy guidelines initiated by Gaviria. His development plan established “the ties of our fellow citizens with their country must be strengthened through the development of political participation mechanisms provided for in the 1991 Constitution, a modern and efficient consular system, and consolidation of participation instruments in the development of the country, such as Red Caldas (Caldas Network).”  In addition, the plan made special emphasis on providing services for Colombian inmates in foreign prisons, with the aim to assure due process and respect for human rights through consular representations.

In compliance with the plan, committees that looked after the repatriation of prisoners, attention to Colombians abroad, and the fight against trafficking in persons were created. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was responsible for the execution of special programs of protection and assistance to Colombians abroad, promotion of community associations for cultural and training purposes, and the promotion of national values.

However, it is worth mentioning that during this period (1996) the Red Caldas initiative, which linked Colombian scientists and researchers that resided abroad with the country, was discontinued. Mejía and Perilla (2009) indicate that the disappearance of this very important initiative to consolidate a science and technology system shows the weakness of many of the programs directed towards migrants, harboured by government policies that do not become State-wide.

The presidency of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) was characterised by a timid continuity of migration policy, despite the fact that emigration of Colombians increased during this period. Among the scarce innovative proposals was the creation of a fund to attend to emergencies of Colombians abroad, which did not materialise.

The abrupt increase of Colombian emigration, in which Spain starts to appear as a primary destination, occurs precisely during this government, demonstrating the inadequate response of public policies vis-á-vis this growing phenomenon. The outburst of the policy foreseen in Pastrana’s development plan showed up in 2001, with the signing of an agreement between Spain and Colombia to promote the regulation and organisation of migrant labour flows between the two countries.

The Last Decade

With the initiation of the first Uribe government, emigration continued to grow, and remittances began to increase significantly with respect to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The development plans of the 2002-2006 and 2006-2010 administrations of Álvaro Uribe’s governments show the importance of migration on the government’s agenda, and the need to develop a state-wide policy regarding the matter, which would ensure continuity and demonstrate the magnitude of the phenomenon.

The development plan of Uribe’s first administration established the need for a comprehensive policy towards Colombian communities abroad, including, for the first time, the status of those who are undocumented, remittances, the need to have information regarding the communities abroad, and to reintroduce the topic of the network of scientists and researchers abroad.

To lead efforts in the matter the National Inter-Sector Commission of Migration was created (Decree 1239/2003). With respect to emigration, the commission included in its functions two novel topics: the return or re-connection to the country, and the social security of Colombians abroad.

Regarding immigration, the commission’s functions are aimed at two basic interests: usefulness of immigrants for the country, and the requirement that they do not affect the labour market of nationals; both interests focus on the categories of qualified workers.

Without being mentioned in the development plan, immigration is presented together with emigration as one of the functions of the Inter-Sector Commission of Migration, reflecting an advance in the comprehensive handling of the migration issue.

The general guidelines of migration policy during the period are expressed in decree 4000/2004, which establishes in general terms, that […] immigration will be regulated according to social, demographic, economic, scientific, cultural, security, public law and order, sanitary needs, and others of interest to the Colombian State […]

During this period, the measures related to immigration were reinforced by the creation of the Advisory Committee for the Determination of Refugee Status and the Procedure to Determine such Status (Decree 245/2002), in response to international commitments and pertinent national laws that endorsed them; and the regulation of voting by foreigners residing in Colombia (Law 1070/2006), that although provided by the 1991 Constitution, did not materialise until 2006.

In 2004, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs created the program Colombia nos une (Colombia unites us), a policy implementation agency for Colombians abroad was created, and which, for the first time, represents a team dedicated to the development and execution of these policies. The program aims, first, to further understand the characteristics of the Colombian emigration phenomenon, and to that end promotes the creation of Alianza país (Country alliance), an inter-institutional and inter-sector authority, that conducted the main studies that have served as the basis for the design of the policy for emigrants.

Colombia nos une coordinates, as well, a series of actions that the government sets in motion to attend to populations abroad, as described in this document.

The second Uribe presidency (2006-2010)was characterised by seeking continuity for actions executed in the previous four-year term, and emphasised the need to design a comprehensive migration policy to include immigration and not only Colombian communities abroad.

According to the document, the results obtained up until now with the Colombia nos une strategy show the need to consolidate and broaden the networks of Colombians abroad.

In order to achieve this, the Community Abroad Plan was put into action. The main objective of this plan is to bring the Colombian community closer to consulates and embassies, facilitate joint work, and achieve better benefits for emigrants, as well as to foster the work of consuls and ambassadors with leaders of Colombian communities. Other important efforts derived from this government plan are the RedEsColombia (Colombia Networks) and the Observatorio sobre Migraciones (Migration Observatory).

The development plan for this period also contemplated new elements and emphases, such as the permanent study of migration movements, loss of human capital caused by them, and forms of counteracting them.

Additionally, for the first time the need of a concerted migration policy with countries of destination and an agreement with those of origin of the region is made explicit, in addition to insistence in the enactment of specific agreements oriented to improve the conditions of Colombians abroad, favouring organised migration.

Lastly, with regard to the relationship between remittances and development, the plan reiterates the need to seek a reduction of their cost and improvement of their use.

As a follow-up to what has been established in the development plan, Colombia Nos Une submitted its Comprehensive Migration Policy proposal (PIM, for its initials in Spanish) to the National Council of Economic and Social Policy (CONPES) in 2008, which has the objective to integrate the strategic guidelines of the policy towards communities abroad and towards immigrants in Colombian territory. The proposal was approved on August 24, 2009, and became State policy by means of document CONPES 3603.

The proposal for the PIM begins with the recognition that there exists limited attention from the Colombian State to the migration phenomenon of which the consequences are, in general terms, that instruments used for implementation of actions and strategies in favour of the migrant population are not effective, and that the development dimensions of the migrant population are neither opportunely nor completely taken care of.

To provide adequate response to the phenomenon, the document focuses, on the one hand to propose a comprehensive treatment to each of the development dimensions of this population, understood to be “all those human potentials that in economic, educational, social, political, and cultural matters can be promoted by the State.”  The document focuses on improving the effectiveness of instruments used to implement strategies and programs regarding migrant population, among them, adaptation of services for Colombians abroad. 

Civil society and academic actors have pointed out some shortages of the PIM, which must be dealt with in order to make its execution viable and to optimise its results. Among other topics, the following are indicated: the need to define real participation mechanisms and increase political representation; a stable structure that goes beyonds the reach of the program Colombia nos une as the agency responsible for the execution of migration policy within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that can guarantee its continuity; and permanent resources for the implementation of the policy.

Simultaneously with the preparation and approval of the PIM, during the year 2009, progress has been made in some measures and initiatives, of which should be highlighted:

The Positive Return Plan (PRP) which has as its fundamental objective to attend to Colombian migrants that return to the country, recognising their experience, knowledge and skills in order to channel them adequately, ensuring benefit of the person and his/her contribution to the development of the country.

The PRP was developed by the creation of returnee service centres that were initially located in the city of Bogotá: Bienvenido a casa (Welcome home); Pereira; Bienvenido a tu Tierra (Welcome to your land). These centres provide emergency humanitarian care, and psychosocial, legal, and economic counseling. This program started in the first semester of 2009.

In 2009, Decree 2622 was approved, which modifies Decree 4000/2004 regarding the issuance of visas and the control of foreigners. Even though the new decree makes the periods and conditions of temporary visas more flexible, as well as for business visas, it does not consider any significant change to the policy of admission of foreigners that wish to reside in the country.

Within the recommendations of the PIM is the evaluation of the economic and political appropriateness of the proportionality system that limits the number of foreign employees that a company may hire (Article 74 of the Labour Substantive Code), as well as the simplification of the formalities for certification of labour proportionality. On December 29, 2010, the Congress of the Republic approved Law 1429 (formalisation and generation of employment), in which are repealed, among others, Articles 74 and 75 of the Labour Substantive Code related to proportionality between national and foreign workers. Formalities related to the issuance of certification of proportionality, and the authorisation to vary the proportion between national and foreign workers, whose legal foundation is supported by aforementioned articles, are similarly eliminated.

Topics on the government agenda

Parallel to the development process of the PIM a debate arose and a proposal began to take shape to create a National Migration System, driven by several civil society and academic organisations that make up the Social Migration Platform. In January 2009, this organisation submitted its proposal to the chamber of representatives and senators of different [political] parties, seeking support for its introduction into the legislature.

This proposal responds to the need to establish a regulation that organises migration policy based on guidelines of the PIM, in a comprehensive nature, and benefits Colombians residing abroad, those that temporarily move outside of the country, foreigners residing in or in transit through Colombia, and nationals that return to re-establish their residency in the country.

According to Mejía and Perilla (2009), this project would be complementary to the PIM, at least in two important aspects. First, representation and participation of communities abroad, defining several authorities with representation of migrants, such as the regional council of migration, territorial councils, and Colombian councils abroad, among others. Second, definition of stable sources of resources for implementation of a migration policy, establishing a special fund for migration, composed of, among others, resources assigned in the national budget, 50% of exit tax paid by Colombians and foreigners when leaving the country, and 20% of revenues of the rotating fund of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In July 2009, Senator Darío Angarita Medellín introduced Bill 016 in the Senate that proposes the creation of the National Migration System.  According to a document prepared by AESCO, this proposal presents a more limited version than that prepared by the Hermes Social Migration Platform, in which participation of the community abroad and civil society is less defined, as well as that of the sources of financing both for system operations and for programs and projects that provide services to communities abroad and migrants in general.

After the first one hundred days of the government of President José Manuel Santos Calderón, the Senate Press Office surveyed the opinion of congresspersons of different political parties regarding the main achievements of this first stage and the main topics for the government’s agenda. None of the interviewees referred to migration or Colombian communities abroad.

Forced migration is also important. Although the majority of forced migration flows are primarily internal, in recent years the trans-border movement has increased markedly, mainly due to the escalation of violence in general.

Data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for the year 2009 indicate that approximately 70,120 Colombian refugees are abroad, a figure that rises to about 552,000, if those found in similar situations are considered, such as those who are informally displaced due to armed conflicts or situations of violence. According to the UNHCR, the majority of this population is found in Ecuador and Venezuela. The magnitude of the movements requires a careful handling of sub-regional politics. The CAN has promoted room for discussion and agreements that has permitted a multilateral approach to the problems. 

Colombia has made important efforts related to migration policy matters, expressed in the development plans of recent decades, in adhesion and/or ratification of international conventions, and the signing of multilateral agreements. The program Colombia nos une represents a significant advancement in the attention provided to the migration phenomenon, insomuch as it implies the assignment of a specific area within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to, among other responsibilities, deal with the topic, formulate and implement migration policies, and the definition of procedures. 

Some of the main achievements have been the recognition of the emigrant as a subject of rights and the development of actions that facilitate the exercise of those rights, the definition of some specific bilateral agreements regarding matters of importance for migrants (social security, taxation, recognition of titles), the inclusion of the topic of return, the approval of the Comprehensive Migration Policy in 2009, and the recent creation of the National Migration System, approved by the senate on December 17, 2010.

According to journalistic information, the bonds of the State with Colombian communities that reside abroad will be strengthened with the approval of this project (Bill 16/2009 (senate)), together with 070/2009 (chamber), approved in second debate by full session of the senate). The initiative will allow the creation and execution of public policies and programs that aim to benefit all Colombians that reside abroad.

Similarly, this initiative seeks to guarantee the comprehensive respect of human rights and improve the quality of life of migrants and their families, as well as to prevent disorderly migration and strengthen participation of emigrant Colombian communities, and social integration of foreigners in Colombia. In addition, it must facilitate the attention of special cases of vulnerability and for humanitarian reasons when immediate assistance and protection is required.

Finally, it establishes measures for the creation of a return plan that seeks to guarantee the rights of Colombians abroad, and offer them solutions to their problems, regarding access to health and housing services, labour level training, development of enterprises and access to credit for productive projects, as well as social assistance through legal counseling and psychological support, among others.