Issue 80 - Article 12

Integration of protection and cash assistance to Venezuelan migrants in Colombia

April 28, 2022

Elizabeth Tromans

Marcela Dajer Gómez

Caminantes on the Cúcuta–Pamplona road.
12 min read

Why is an integrated cash and protection response needed?

According to Migracion Colombia, there are 1.77 million Venezuelans in Colombia, 56% of whom do not have regular migration status through formal Colombian identity documents. The economic impacts and isolation measures due to Covid-19 have resulted in a significant deterioration in the socioeconomic situation for migrants, as the loss of income from formal and informal jobs has reduced access to basic goods and services such as food, healthcare and education. Nearly 50% of migrants are without safe housing, and a majority (64%) report not having the capacity to feed themselves adequately, consuming two or fewer meals per day. One-quarter have a food consumption score of ‘poor’, and 84% report using some form of negative coping strategy to obtain income, including 15% who report doing work that puts their health, safety, integrity or life at risk. International Rescue Committee (IRC) monitoring data.

Gender-based violence (GBV)

Forty-one per cent of GBV survivors reported to the IRC are unemployed. Most earn some income through street vending, but this exposes them to harassment, as Venezuelan women are often perceived to be sex workers. Fifty per cent of over 2,200 women interviewed by the IRC reported that they had suffered GBV, with 46% experiencing sexual violence, 27% psychological violence, 23% economic violence and 4% physical violence. In many cases, survivors report that perpetrators are recently established intimate partners exploiting the relative vulnerability of Venezuelan women in Colombia. More than half of respondents do not have a social network they can trust in Colombia, and only one-fifth of these women feel safe enough to report the incident to the authorities.

The risks of GBV are compounded by gender stereotypes and xenophobia, which are also associated with barriers to accessing basic services and livelihoods, especially for female-headed households – particularly within certain subgroups such as indigenous and Afro-descendant women, women with disabilities, pregnant and lactating women, girls and adolescents (especially the unaccompanied) and people of the LGBTQI+ community (especially trans women and women engaged in sex work).

Child protection (CP)

According to the 2021 Regional Refugee and Migration Response Plan (RMRP), 1.11 million people are in need of CP services. Only 22% of them were targeted to receive humanitarian assistance under this sub-sector in 2021. The main threats to which Venezuelan children are exposed are abuse, violence, neglect, exploitation, family separation and child recruitment by irregular armed groups. Children and adolescents in transit are particularly vulnerable in locations where irregular armed groups are present. Unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) face greater protection risks and challenges to accessing the national CP system for basic services.

Adolescents are at heightened risk of recruitment and exploitation by armed groups and have been identified by UNHCR as being the most underserved by humanitarian actors. IRC’s data confirms the CP risks identified by the Interagency Group for Mixed Migration Flows (GIFMM): IRC’s case management data from 358 clients in 2020 showed that 50% of CP cases were related to negligence, 18% to child labour (including begging), 17% to emotional abuse, 9% to sexual abuse and 6% to physical abuse. The average age of children receiving case management services is eight, with 52% being girls.

Compared to 2019 data, reports of parental neglect and sexual abuse increased, corresponding to the effects of prolonged periods of lockdown in the context of Covid-19 and the increased use of negative coping mechanisms. During 2020, a high percentage of children had no access to educational activities because of the suspension of education services; without access to structured activities during the day, caregivers resorted to leaving children in the care of a relative or person under 18, or leaving them at home alone during the day, increasing CP risks, including abuse, and other types of violence (GIFMM Joint Needs Assessment, July 2020). This is particularly worrisome as 20% of people surveyed at this time reported not feeling safe in the neighbourhood where they lived.

Pregnant and lactating teenage mothers, young people on the move alone, indigenous children, children with disabilities and children with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities continue to be at higher risk due to the lack of specialised protection services available to them and their heightened risks because of their age, gender and/or social and ethnic background. Venezuelan children and adolescents also require assistance in mitigating barriers to accessing education, family reunification and basic rights and services. These have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

How is the integrated response functioning?

To address these challenges, the IRC committed to ensuring a comprehensive, multi-sector response that allows for addressing economic issues which exacerbate protection risks. Although, as in other organisations and the humanitarian architecture itself, IRC teams often work in individual sector silos, IRC Colombia made a deliberate effort to confront this obstacle. The response is made up of three teams working together: Economic Recovery and Development (ERD), Child Protection (CP) and Women’s Protection and Empowerment (WPE). While a number of other IRC country programmes use a similar model of cash for protection, IRC Colombia has established this multi-team integration in a more formalised way.

What support is needed?

Women at risk of or who have survived GBV require financial support as a priority to meet their basic needs, to allow them to get out of the economic dependency which keeps them in a position of risk in the home. The CP team identify families or unaccompanied children who are economically vulnerable. As part of overall psychosocial and early childhood development support provided to the family, referrals are made to the ERD team, where cash may be needed to partially address some of the risks children face in the home due to economic vulnerability.

How is this support provided?

As one step of this wider process, WPE and CP teams refer individuals to the ERD team for cash assistance. (IRC delivers this cash assistance as a member of the VenEsperanza consortium, which is led by Mercy Corps and funded by USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.) In the case of WPE, the cash is provided for women to meet their basic needs, reducing the risk of labour and sexual exploitation and trafficking, as well as their reliance on a perpetrator for economic support. In the case of CP, the cash is provided to reduce exploitative labour or the risk thereof. However, receiving multipurpose cash assistance is insufficient; IRC focuses on a process of autonomy, empowerment, decision-making and independence so women can get out of situations and environments of domination by perpetrators of economic, physical, sexual and/or psychological violence, and children can escape the risk of exploitative labour, trafficking and/or recruitment by armed groups. IRC’s overall case management approach includes an individualised care plan, developed after an assessment to identify families’ psychosocial needs.

Ongoing accompaniment is provided through case management. Both CP and WPE teams follow a client-centred, case management approach. CP Case Management is ‘the process of helping individual children and families through direct social-work type support, and information management’ (Interagency Guidelines for Case Management in Child Protection, 2014). The IRC WPE team refers GBV survivors or women at risk of GBV for cash assistance following the Interagency GBV Case Management Guidelines: ‘a structured method for providing help to a survivor … it involves one organization, usually a psychosocial support or social services actor, taking responsibility for making sure that survivors are informed about all the options available to them, and that issues and problems facing a survivor are identified and followed up in a coordinated way’. Case management provides a structured method for providing help, whereby the survivor or at-risk individual is informed of all the options available to them and the issues and problems they face are identified and followed up in a coordinated way. Emotional support is provided throughout the process. Case management has also become the primary entry point for survivors and other at-risk individuals to receive crisis and longer-term psychosocial support, given the lack of more established health and social support service providers in humanitarian settings.

Because Venezuelan migrants also face significant barriers in meeting their health needs in Colombia, sometimes due to economic factors, IRC’s health team also refers clients to the economic team. This paper focuses on protection referrals.

Results so far

In a project endline conducted in March 2021 for the VenEsperanza consortium, IRC and partner data indicates that 24.3% of project participants were able to meet most basic needs, a 15.7-point increase from the baseline of 8.6% reported in October 2020, indicating that, for beneficiaries targeted purely for economic factors, the intervention was successful. Data collected through the end of March 2021 showed a 7.8-point increase in the proportion of households whose shelter met agreed technical and performance standards. The percentage of households reporting moderate to severe hunger fell from 69.6% in the baseline to 42.6% in the endline.

For clients referred from Protection teams to the ERD teams, limited disaggregated, analysed data currently exists. According to qualitative data collected by Protection teams, clients receiving cash report doing less work that puts their health, safety, integrity or life at risk. Clients note that the combination of psychosocial and economic support allows them to improve their living conditions. Examples provided by staff include girls attending school for the first time in Colombia since their migration, women survivors of GBV being able to move to a safe shelter, and parents being able to send their adolescent child to school instead of to work selling goods on the street. A broader data analysis and review and a lessons learned event are planned for 2022.

In 2020, 50% of women and children in IRC’s case management programme were referred to other IRC and external support services, including cash assistance (70%), health services (22%), GBV prevention and response services (4%) and education (4%).

Contributors to the programme’s success

IRC Colombia staff attribute the programme’s success to a number of factors, but first to a shared vision of protection mainstreaming, developed collaboratively. Specifically:

  • Protection and ERD teams jointly developed a programme strategy and subsequent programme design models for business development.
  • No one team ‘owns’ the programme; standard operating procedures, including selection criteria, are jointly agreed, as well as the tools.
  • The Protection teams carry out case management, in which they are specialists, while the ERD team focuses on cash delivery.
  • Regular programme cycle meetings are held to discuss implementation and review monitoring data and other feedback.

Both teams acknowledge that developing shared programme documents was a lengthy process, particularly in developing a shared tool to be able to follow cases between interventions. However, this time-consuming step invested at the start of the programme has facilitated smooth collaboration during programme implementation.


IRC teams have faced challenges with misinformation circulating in communities – about selection criteria, transfer values or other services offered. In some cases, the spreading of rumours jeopardised the safety of staff. To address this, IRC unified messages across programme teams on its local SignPost forum InfoPa’lante, IRC’s information and engagement platform launched with partners in 2015. Unifying messages across teams – for example, reiterating that assistance is free and there are no intermediaries, and that assistance is provided directly from IRC through its donors – has helped to counteract rumours and manage expectations among community members.

There have also been some challenges in establishing monitoring and evaluation systems. Substantial time was spent clarifying specific criteria for when clients would be eligible for different types of support: case management support only, economic support only, or both case management and economic support. Until now, monitoring of cash recipients has only focused on food security and economic indicators, though ideally the team would like to capture the effect of cash assistance on protection outcomes as well. More work is needed to analyse existing data, disaggregating outcome data by who received what intervention, which has been challenging to do across the different data management platforms of the three teams.

Alongside information campaigns on the type of assistance provided, the individualised case management approach allows IRC to support and empower people to develop exit strategies when assistance ends, including in some cases referrals to IRC’s livelihoods programme. IRC is carrying out a livelihoods programme (funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration) with local partner Minuto de Dios, which provides entrepreneurial, apprenticeship or vocational training. Priority is given to IRC internal cash assistance referrals for GBV survivors and LGBTQI+ members.

Xenophobia among host Colombians has been another project challenge, with tensions arising as pandemic-related needs also increased in host communities. IRC has responded by increasing awareness of the social safety net programmes provided by the Colombian government for which internally displaced Colombians or other Colombian victims of armed conflict may be eligible, but Venezuelans are not.

Next steps

Because needs have increased throughout the pandemic, IRC plans to both increase total client reach and expand geographic scope. In the Colombia country programme’s Strategy Action Plan (SAP), which is currently under development, IRC has committed to targeting both migrants from Venezuela and internally displaced Colombians. Second, in order to scale as well as reach the most in-need cases, Protection teams have identified local partners with roots in target communities and a shared vision of integrated protection services, who will work alongside IRC. Lastly, as a matter of reflection and learning ahead of finalising the Colombia SAP, IRC will conduct a deeper analysis of the integration approach, ideally through an external evaluation. In addition, IRC plans to expand its referral system beyond IRC to other organisations offering the same or complementary services.

Elizabeth Tromans is the Senior Technical Advisor for Cash and Emergencies with the International Rescue Committee based in New York. Marcela Dajer Gómez is the Economic Recovery and Development Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Colombia based in Bogotá.


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