(12 May 2018) As the exodus of Venezuelans fleeing their country's economic and humanitarian crisis grows, neighboring Colombia is responding by tightening checks aimed at curbing the number of migrants in the country illegally.
In border cities like Cucuta, police are rounding up Venezuelans illegally hawking popsicles in public squares or working as prostitutes in brothels and taking them back to Venezuela.
But the removals, although often legal, raise a prickly question: Should migrants be sent back to a country the U.S. and others have condemned as a hunger-stricken "dictatorship?"
"We can't tell everyone, 'Come, stay here,'" Christian Kruger, the director of Colombia's migration agency, said in a recent interview. "There is no country in the world that can support unlimited migration."
About 1 million Venezuelans fled from 2015 to 2017, according to the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, and hundreds of thousands more have left in the first three months of this year.
They are now displaced throughout the region in an accelerating migratory wave that is unparalleled in South America's modern history.
Colombia has received the bulk of the migrants, with an estimated 3,000 Venezuelans arriving in the neighboring Andean nation each day.
At that pace, Colombia receives within two months about as many migrants as Italy did in all of 2016 during the more high-profile Mediterranean migration crisis.
Officially, Colombia deports few migrants: Just 442 have been removed from the country so far in 2018, according to government
But those numbers do not include migrants who officials count as having "voluntarily returned" to their country of origin. In total, about 2,700 Venezuelans have been sent back under that classification, according to officials.
A new special migration unit launched by President Juan Manuel Santos in February conducts twice-daily round ups in the nation's busiest border cities.
According to Kruger, Venezuelans caught without papers are given the option of paying a fine far higher than what most will earn in a year or contesting it in court.
Facing those prospects, he said most instead ask to be taken back.
In several inspections witnessed recently by the AP, however, migrants themselves did not ask to be returned. Instead, officials told them simply to, "Get in the truck," as several police officers kept guard nearby.
Once back in Venezuela, most of the migrants easily find a way to return to Colombia through the nation's porous 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border.
The United Nations' Refugee Agency recently issued guidance to regional governments explaining that many of the migrants likely qualify for international protection, and telling officials that Venezuelans should not be deported or forcibly returned.
Though many are not fleeing targeted political persecution, the U.N. noted that the circumstances leading Venezuelans to migrate fall within the spirit of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration signed by several Latin American nations.
The non-binding agreement embraces a broader definition of refugees to include people fleeing violence, hunger and poverty resulting from the breakdown in the rule of law.
The U.N. has not commented specifically on Colombia's removals.
Colombian officials have been careful to avoid using the word "refugee," a designation that would also imply devoting greater resources to migrants at a time when the country is also trying to push forward a historic peace process.
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