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Colombia gives Venezuela newborns a start in life

Parents from Venezuela hold their newborn baby

Parents Yonielys Villegas and José Miguel Sequera Borges visit their newborn son Enmanuel at the main maternity hospital in Bogota, Colombia.
© UNHCR/Daniel Dreifuss

New measure grants citizenship to the children born to Venezuelan parents on Colombia soil, helping thousands at risk of statelessness.

One afternoon in early September, Yonielys Villegas was tending to the basement apartment she shares with the 11 other members of her extended family, with whom she fled her native Venezuela, when she felt a sharp abdominal pain. It could not have anything to do with her pregnancy, she reasoned, as she was only in her seventh month. She figured it must be an upset stomach.


But the pain worsened, and she started to lose blood. Family members hauled Yonielys out of bed and helped her down the steep hill upon which the shantytown where they live is perched and to a nearby public hospital. There, doctors performed an emergency C-section. The baby, Enmanuel, was alive but tiny—weighing just 1.7 kilos. He was whisked away to an incubator, where he would remain, on a respirator, for weeks.

“The doctors told me that the baby wouldn’t have survived if we were still in Venezuela,” said Yonielys, 25, who hails from the city of Puerto Cabello, on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast and arrived in Colombia, along with her husband and 4-year-old son, in late 2018. “It’s only because we’re here, where we can get proper medical treatment, that he survived.”

“Under the previous rules, these babies were essentially stateless—it’s that simple.”

Colombian doctors saved baby Enmanuel’s life. Now a new measure enacted by the government seeks to ensure that he—and thousands of other babies like him born to Venezuelan parents—will have the best shot at making the most of it. Under the measure, children born on Colombian soil to Venezuelans parents are now granted Colombian nationality, which eliminates barriers to accessing education, health care and other vital rights enjoyed by Colombian citizens.

It used to be that only babies with at least one Colombian parent or those born to foreign parents who meet the residence requirements were eligible to acquire Colombian citizenship, and with the breakdown of basic public services in Venezuela and the country’s consulates abroad often making it impossible to obtain Venezuelan identity documents to confirm Venezuelan nationality, newborns were left in limbo— at risk of statelessness or stateless.

A woman from Venezuela holds her baby

Yonielys Villegas cares for her son Enmanuel at the main maternity hospital in Bogota, Colombia. © UNHCR/Daniel Dreifuss

“Under the previous rules, these babies were essentially stateless—it’s that simple. There’s no other way to put it,” said Alcides Aguilar Piratova, registrar in the San Cristóbal district of Bogotá, a down at heel area where the relatively cheap housing has acted as a magnet for many Venezuelan families.

There are millions stateless people worldwide. Denied a nationality, they are also denied basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement. Often, stateless people are unable to do even such basic things as see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house, get married or even by a SIM card for a mobile phone.

The new measure has put Colombia in the vanguard in terms of preventing statelessness among Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Thanks to the measure—which went into effect in August 2019, will remain valid for two years and retroactively include babies born since January, 2015—some 27,000 children born in Colombia to Venezuelan parents are now acquiring Colombian nationality.

That means that the personnel at registrars’ offices like the one in the San Cristóbal district are having to comb through their records to identify those children eligible to receive Colombian nationality and modify their birth certificates—a time-consuming and labor-intensive task.

UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration and UNICEF have pitched in to help pay for extra personnel at some of the registrar’s offices with the heaviest workloads. The goal is to finish modifying all eligible children’s birth certificates by the end of the year.

“This measure is going to have a lasting effect.”

“Although the Colombian constitution states that all children under age five should be able to access basic services such as health care, the reality was that people without Colombian documents often faced real hurdles,” said Leonardo Guerrero, Assistant Programme Officer in UNHCR’s Bogotá office.

“This measure is going to have a lasting effect by guaranteeing that as these children grow up and need to use more public services—such as schools—that they have the same access as any other Colombian citizen.”

Over four million Venezuelans have fled food and medicine shortages, rolling blackouts, spiraling violence, and widespread dysfunction back home, most seeking safety in neighbouring countries in Latin America and The Caribbean.  More than 1.4 million are living in Colombia..

For families with babies born since the measure went into effect, the transition has proven seamless.

When Yeika* went to register the birth of her son, Luiger,* the staff at the registrar’s office simply included a note at the bottom of the birth certificate stating the boy was Colombian.

“I’m very relieved,” said Yeika, who made the arduous overland journey from her home in the coastal city of Maracaibo to the Colombian capital when she was four months pregnant. “I know that being Colombian will make things much easier for him.”

If you want to know more about how you can make a difference to the lives of newborns like Enmanuel and Luiger, join our #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness.

* Names have been changed over protection concerns.

Originally published on UNHCR on 15 October 2019