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EL ESPECTADOR

As Venezuelans Arrive, 'Brexit Mentality' Spreads In Bogota

In the Colombian capital, residents are starting to balk at the arrival of so many desperate Venezuelans. There's empathy, yes. But also caution and alarm.

Colombians, too, are following a global trend of isolationism
Colombians, too, are following a global trend of isolationism
Germán Alberto Rodríguez

-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — I am trying to understand Brexit from the social point of view, from the perspective of those who voted Leave or who think their country is being overrun by migrants. Because as far as I can see, people here in Bogota feel something similar every time we're approached by a youngster from Ecuador or Venezuela selling sweets or whatever else at the traffic lights.

Some of them ask humbly while others give you a dirty look if you give them nothing. Every traffic junction is starting to look like an extortion point. And all we can do is give them a few coins, which doesn't really better their condition though it makes ours worse.

The more profitable the begging business becomes, the less they are moved to look for a job or return to their country. As a humanitarian gesture, the city government in January relocated more than 500 people who had taken over a property near the city bus terminal. The situation was chaotic, with people sleeping in tents — or out in the open — and without basic amenities.

He was just a person trying to protect his family of five.

People voted for Brexit because they don't like seeing foreigners everywhere, because they felt immigrants were taking jobs or housing, even when they accept that they're also good people. Bogota residents think along the same lines. They are scared by the number of people floating in and out of the capital, with entire families roaming along city highways, and children exposed to the elements. Most are decent folk for sure, but there have been criminal incidents.

Venezuelans are suffering in their own country and have few options. Recently I spoke to a Venezuelan about his conditions here. He said he'd been forced to migrate due to a lack of food and medicine. He was just a person trying to protect his family of five. A difficult situation. Their lodgings, he said, were a single room in a motel for which the family was being charged 35,000 pesos a day (about 10 euros). That works out to more than a million a month (280-300 euros). The price is extortionate of course, and exceeds a legal, monthly rent. He had to pay every day, and said he wishes he could legalize his situation here, to find a job.

But that still leaves us with the big, big question: Would it really be possible to legalize all the Venezuelans roaming around the city? Do we have the economic means for their integration? I once made the suggestion that we help all these needy people, to which a friend replied: "You'd do better to help a compatriot in need, as there are so many. Why must we import beggars when we have enough already?"

Do we have the economic means for their integration?

That, it occurs to me, is the Brexit mentality in a nutshell: It should be us first. It is the opinion of an ordinary fellow who feels the city is being filled with unfamiliar people, both good and bad, though who can tell which is which. And wouldn't it just be better if they weren't here?

The government could provide the answer — closing the border, taking these people to shelters, providing food. And to some extent, it has done those things. Like the migrants in Europe, the ones coming to Colombia are "just people wanting to protect their families." Yes, but what can I do? What should our position be? Should we too vote for them to leave? Either way, we can hardly increase the burdens on our unfortunate city. We already have enough problems here.

And you, what do you think?

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