BOGOTA – Thousands of children born in Colombia to Venezuelan mothers are stuck in legal limbo with no identity documents, putting them at risk of statelessness, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned on Thursday.
Nearly 1.3 million Venezuelans have settled in neighboring Colombia, fleeing a political and economic crisis in their homeland that has caused severe shortages of food and medicine.
About 20,000 children of Venezuelan parents have been born in Colombia, according to government figures, and many are not eligible for either nationality, leaving them stateless.
Juan Ignacio Mondelli, UNHCR’s senior regional protection officer, said Colombia was committed to addressing the problem but needed to develop a mechanism to identify children who are stateless or at risk of being stateless.
“The recommendation we have is that whatever the path the (Colombian) authorities choose to follow be it a law, a decree … is that a mechanism is planned that allows the cases currently registered to be resolved,” Mondelli said.
“That this changes from being a problem about nationality to a problem about documentation,” he told reporters in Bogota.
Stateless people, sometimes referred to as “legal ghosts,” are not recogniszed as nationals by any country. They are often unable to access health care and education and cannot travel, get married, open a bank account, rent or own a home.
There is no reliable estimate for the number of stateless people although the U.N. has previously said there could be 10 million.
Unlike most countries in Latin America, Colombia does not automatically grant citizenship to children born in the country.
Under the constitution, children must have at least one parent who is Colombian to obtain citizenship.
Nearly 3,300 children born in Colombia since late 2017 to Venezuelan parents have been registered at the National Civil Registry and have received birth certificates.
But the bottom of the certificate reads: “Not valid to show nationality.”
Obtaining Venezuelan citizenship is also impossible — to do so, a Venezuelan parent would have to formally register their child in the country or at one of its consulates in Colombia.
But these are all closed since Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia in February.
Nohemi Luzardo fled Venezuela in 2016 and gave birth to a girl in Bogota 18 months ago.
“I registered my daughter’s birth at the registry office but I was told if neither parent is Colombian then she’s Venezuelan,” Luzardo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We don’t want to return to Venezuela and anyway we don’t have the money to travel so we haven’t registered her birth in Venezuela, and so she isn’t Venezuelan. She’s stateless,” said Luzardo, 27, who scrapes a living selling food in the street.
To address the legal limbo, three different bills have been presented before Colombia’s congress, including one that seeks to allow children born in the country to undocumented Venezuelan parents to obtain citizenship.
Colombia is providing free emergency health care and vaccines to Venezuelan migrant children, and to those born in Colombia, and many Venezuelan children are also going to school there.
“They (stateless people) live in the shadows and end up in practice being excluded,” Mondelli said.