The Observatory of Gender Issues of Norte de Santander was set up in 2019. Based in Cúcuta, a city on the north-east Colombian border with Venezuela, its aim is to generate qualitative and quantitative gender analysis and information to contribute to regional social and political change towards equality. Its research focuses on gender-based violence (GBV), political participation, economic autonomy, border issues and migration, sexual and reproductive rights and human trafficking. The Observatory has published five reports on political participation of women in the 2019 local election, GBV and security from a gender perspective.
Between January and December 2021, our research identified 830 victims of GBV in Norte de Santander: 29% Venezuelans and 71% Colombians; of these, 24% were from the LGBT population, primarily transgender and bisexual individuals. Some 68% of cases occurred in Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander; 8% in Venezuela; and 4% at illegal border crossings controlled by armed groups. The remaining cases were in other municipalities, mainly border areas such as Tibú, Villa del Rosario and Los Patios. Ninety-six per cent of victims suffered psychological violence; 88% suffered sexual violence; 79% registered physical violence; and 44% endured economic violence. Venezuelans accounted for 40% of victims of economic violence, 32% of victims of physical violence, 31% for sexual violence and 30% for psychological violence. The Observatory also noted that only 22% victims reported incidents to the authorities, and only 15% accessed health services to treat trauma. The Observatory’s latest report provides data about violence suffered by women and LGBT caminantes, or walking migrants. Migrants trekking by foot to national and international destinations, sometimes individually or in groups. These account for 5% of victims registered in the study, 85% of whom experienced economic violence, mostly relating to bribes paid to police officials in Colombia, national guard officers in Venezuela and illegal armed groups. A similar proportion (84%) suffered psychological violence related to xenophobic aggression or attacks by their partners; 74% and 73% also suffered physical and sexual aggression, respectively. Venezuelan women and LGBT people experienced these forms of violence at home or in their communities, and in some cases this was one of their reasons for leaving the country. Entering Colombia through border crossing points, most of them illegal, they again suffer violence at the hands of criminal armed groups asking for bribes and, in many cases, raping, torturing, killing or ‘disappearing’ women. Official border points are open to migrants on foot and to commercial traffic. However, transgender migrant women have warned local organisations that Venezuelan national guard officers are preventing them from crossing the Simón Bolívar international bridge. According to them, even after showing health records and medical appointments as the reason to enter Colombia, officers force them to use illegal routes where they are at high risk of sexual aggression and murder at the hands of the armed men controlling crossing points.
Once in Colombia, the intersection of gender and xenophobic prejudice has a direct effect on the lives of Venezuelan women and LGBT people. Interviewed victims have endured social exclusion, with many women forced into prostitution and sex work to make ends meet for themselves and their families, the denial of basic human rights (especially regarding health, education and safety) and higher risks of sexual exploitation.
Violence must be seen as a pattern of acts that emerge before, during and after migration, encompassing domestic settings, public spaces, institutional offices and health services. For Venezuelan transgender women, establishing themselves in Cúcuta means that they will likely only have opportunities as sex workers or selling drugs on the street. The cycle of violence pushes them to the limits of legality, where the state treats them as criminals, not as vulnerable victims.
The third Observatory report analysed several routes used by migrants, including the humanitarian corridor of Los Patios, where under-age women are lied to about job offers as street vendors in Cúcuta and then forced into sexual exploitation. On the road from Cúcuta to Bucaramanga, armed men seize women to sexually assault and exploit them. The high mountains of the Páramo de Berlín present risks of hypothermia and sex trafficking for women at the hands of armed men After interviewing staff from different humanitarian organisations who work in the Páramo, the shared conclusion is that it is still unknown who these men are or if they are affiliated to illegal armed groups. Some officers mentioned that they could be citizens from Bucaramanga ganging up, but this is uncertain due to the lack of corroborated information. under the justification that Venezuelans are barred from travelling down to Bucaramanga. From Bucaramanga to San Gil, women caminantes are captured by illegal armed groups for sex trafficking and moved to territories under their control in Bolívar department.
According to the authorities, between 2019 and 2020 human trafficking increased by 267%. Structural conditions in Norte de Santander, including high rates of poverty and unemployment and the presence of a wide range of illegal groups, from leftist guerrillas to transnational criminal gangs and Mexican drug cartels, provide fertile ground for crime, especially sex trafficking. Undocumented migrant women are being defrauded with false promises of work and good salaries as maids and waitresses in homes, restaurants and billiard parlours. As live-in maids, women can work from 4:00 am to 11:00 pm, suffering labour exploitation, psychological aggression and sexual assault from family members; their mobile phones are taken away and they are allowed out of the home for just a few hours, under heavy surveillance. In billiard parlours, waitresses are coerced into sex with clients. As undocumented migrants, women are forced to stay in exploitative work under threat of being reported to the authorities. Several women told the Observatory that, when they spoke to people back home about their working conditions, the answer was that they should be glad to have a job at all. Xenophobic and patriarchal norms dictate the expectations migrant women have in Colombia, in the eyes of many justifying sex or labour exploitation resulting from human trafficking.
Oddly, there are no reports or information available nationwide for LGBT victims. Currently the Observatory is directing a research project, with Caribe Afirmativo and Avocats Sans Frontières Canada, for the creation of the first national report on LGBT victims of human trafficking. The research is being carried out in Antioquia, Santander and Norte de Santander as it is easier to access information in these departments than in other territories. The project hopes to publish its findings in March 2022. Challenges identified so far include the lack of documented information in general. Antioquia and Santander departments offered out-of-date official reports with little analysis. Norte de Santander had a wider range of information mostly produced by national and local civil society organisations, while local government hasn’t produced any public reports. None of the reports included data on LGBT victims, and there are no specific numbers beyond gender/nationality. Civil servants interviewed in the three departments didn’t have recent reports on LGBT victims; in Norte de Santander, for example, the current number of LGBT victims is officially zero. This plainly does not reflect the reality faced by transgender women and gay men in the department.
Norte de Santander is a complex social context for the protection of human rights in general, and the rights of women, migrants and the LGBT population in particular. Experiences of GBV are evidence that there is a humanitarian crisis in the department, fuelled by internal armed conflict, the challenging binational management of migration flows, the failure of the international war on drugs and the poverty most people endure. Although the Observatory is the only organisation currently working on gender research and data production in the department, it does not work alone as it is constantly providing key information to local government institutions and international and national organisations providing assistance.
A central recommendation from our reports is the need for a feminist migration policy based on the protection of human rights and intersectional analysis. This must address:
- The demilitarisation of communities where migrants live, as this has proven to be an unsuccessful strategy to safeguard security, putting migrant women and the LGBT population at risk of violence, and exacerbating xenophobic prejudice by linking the Venezuelan population to criminality.
- Strengthened regularisation mechanisms, such as the Temporary Protection Statute for Venezuelan Migrants, since the lack of documents has proved a constant barrier to the protection of migrants’ human rights, especially for women and LGBT migrants.
- A guaranteed basic human rights package for undocumented migrants, including access to sexual and reproductive health services and psychological and legal assistance to victims of GBV and human trafficking.
- Re-establishing bilateral cooperation between nations in order to address and prevent exclusion, violence, human trafficking and impunity during migration.
- Tackling xenophobia and prejudice, starting with civil servants.
- Reforming anti-drug approaches, since prohibition has intensified conflict and armed control in vulnerable communities (most of them with a high migrant presence), fuelling the creation of transnational criminal gangs between Colombia and Venezuela, such as La Línea and El Tren de Aragua.
Local government offices have been informed about this proposal through public events and documents. However, this is still a difficult conversation as Colombia does not have even a basic migration policy, and the humanitarian crisis is largely managed through security policies, implying a greater presence of military and police forces at the border and in migrants’ communities. International agencies and civil society organisations have wider acceptance since many, such as De Justicia, are also pushing for a human rights-based migration policy. In Cúcuta, this is an ongoing discussion led by the Observatory, with frequent mentions in newspaper articles, television programmes, public events and social networks. However, the larger challenge is in Bogotá and other cities that don’t share borders with Venezuela. As a research organisation, it is our duty to use our information, data and analysis during the 2022 Congressional and presidential elections in order that a feminist approach to migration management becomes central to decision-making in the future.
Adriana Marcela Pérez-Rodríguez is the co-founder and Director of the Observatory of Gender Issues of Norte de Santander in Cúcuta, Colombia.