Challenges for Venezuelan refugee students in Colombia

The economic, political and social conflicts occurring in Venezuela have caused over three million Venezuelans to flee to countries across Latin America and beyond. This is the largest migrant crisis in the Western Hemisphere and it is worsening by the day.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimates that, by the end of 2019, Colombia will have more than 2.2 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela. This includes nearly half a million returning Colombian refugees who fled to Venezuela during the 52-year Colombian conflict.

The Syrian crisis has inspired several initiatives in Europe to open higher education to refugees. So what are Colombian higher education institutions doing in response to the Venezuelan refugee crisis?

A double crisis

As a result of the Venezuelan crisis, Colombia is facing the largest incoming group of migrants in the region. However, Colombia is also attempting to heal from its own period of instability and a war-torn history.

Recently, the country has been grappling with a new peace deal that was intended to formally end the conflict with a left-wing guerrilla group and reintegrate the largest population of internally displaced people in the world.

According to the UNHCR, there are an estimated 7.4 million internally displaced people in Colombia. The United Nations has called this ‘Colombia’s Invisible Crisis’. In sum, Colombia is faced with two major issues: reintegrating 7.4 million internally displaced people and welcoming nearly three million Venezuelan migrants.

The immense migrant group coming from Venezuela includes Venezuelan citizens and returning Colombians of all socio-economic backgrounds. The education sector in Venezuela is crippled by the national economic crisis, violence on campus and the increasing political instability of the country.

Of the three million who have fled Venezuela, many of them are students and early career professionals, including academics who can no longer afford to study or teach.

Due to the economic crisis and the increasing inflation rate, universities are unable to fund basic necessities. This has created a mass exodus of Venezuelan students and scholars.

Capuchas, masked politically motivated gang members, violently disrupt university campuses. And many students are leaders in the protests against Nicolás Maduro. As a result, there are daily protests on campus, which brings police and military violence onto the campuses.

The violence on campus and a lack of funds are forcing universities to close across Venezuela, leaving hundreds of thousands of students unable to complete their degrees and leaving professors without jobs.

With the exit of professors and academic leaders, in addition to violence on campus and the lack of a quality, affordable education, students have been unable to continue their studies in the country and are taking refuge in Colombia and other neighbouring countries.


In Colombia, universities are important actors in the peacebuilding process. According to a study by Ivan Pacheco and Ane Turner Johnson in 2014, most public and some private universities have special quotas for demobilised combatants, forcibly displaced people and veterans from regular armed forces.

Colombia is an example of how universities can be important actors in peacebuilding. However, with the country facing a second crisis, can universities play a role in including another marginalised community, the Venezuelan refugees, in peacebuilding efforts?

Colombia has opened its doors to Venezuelan migrants. Unlike the UNHCR, however, Colombia has not officially classified these migrants as refugees. As a result, they are unable to access basic rights and this further inhibits their access to higher education institutions.

More barriers than sources of support

Based on interviews and in-depth desk research, I have found that there appear to be more barriers than sources of support for refugee students in Colombia.

The Colombian displaced community has some admissions support at public higher education institutions, but this support seems not to be extended to the Venezuelan migrant community.

Students who have dual Colombian citizenship are able to overcome some of the barriers that non-Colombian nationals face when trying to access a Colombian university. However, even for Venezuelans with dual citizenship who have fled to Colombia, universities still require documents that are only available in Venezuela.

Additionally, universities in Colombia do not recognise the crisis as their responsibility and are reliant on the Ministry of National Education to make policy changes.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of National Education claims that through the Autonomy Law of 1992, universities do not need to rely on the ministry in order to be proactive in the creation of admissions policies which aim to tackle the migrant crisis. Thus, there is a clear clash of finger-pointing between the universities and the Ministry of National Education.

Barriers to accessing Colombian higher education for Venezuelan refugee students include a lack of proper documentation and financial support, limited or no access to technology, legal policies which limit the flexibility of the university to act, inconclusive degree recognition frameworks between the two nations and limited sources of support to guide Venezuelans properly through the education process.

Since many refugees flee their country without having the ability to prepare documents or take the necessary steps to continue their education in Colombia, many are not able to apply for a university education in Colombia.

Furthermore, universities have not advertised any services for the refugee community. Without any free or accessible information, refugees do not know their rights or the requirements they need to fulfil to apply for tertiary education.

Additionally, none of the institutions use their free online learning courses as a mechanism to aid the refugee population. The free online courses are a valid alternative to taking courses without fees or documents being required.

Overall, the national policy of standardising the admissions policies of all universities in Colombia has completely deterred Venezuelan enrolment in Colombian institutions. Universities are using this standardisation policy as a scapegoat for their marginal role in helping the migrant population.

Legal policies, including the requirement that all Venezuelans need to apply for a student visa, totally limit the ability of refugees to access higher education. There are no support services dedicated to refugees with regard to higher education in Colombia.

Lessons from the Syrian crisis

Because higher education has a direct role to play in improving a nation’s economic development and stability, the policies preventing refugees from participating in tertiary education are inefficient and wasteful.

Colombia is attempting to recover from a 52-year-long civil war and this new population has the potential to help rebuild the nation, create a peaceful future and to strengthen the bonds between Colombia and Venezuela.

Colombia can learn from the way higher education institutions and other stakeholders in Europe have responded to the Syrian refugee crisis. Turkey, in particular, may provide a good reference point.

Hannah Maria Cazzetta is a 2019 graduate of the MA in International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. Email: