Could Brazil and Colombia’s Integration of Venezuelan Migrants Be a Model for Refugee Labor? 


According to Fordham Law Professor Jennifer Gordon, the exodus of Venezuelans has become the world’s largest modern movement of people across borders, surpassing the Syrian and Ukrainian refugee crises. Over the last decade, more than 7 million people have fled Venezuela to escape political instability and severe economic issues, in search of better living conditions in other South American countries.

Although Venezuelans have not been formally recognized as refugees by the United Nations, the mass migration of Venezuelans to neighboring Colombia and Brazil can serve as an important case study for how migrants and refugees can be integrated into local economies, Gordon argued, in a new report published in January 2024.

The report, “Decent Work for displaced people: Lessons from the experiences of Venezuelan Migrant and Refugee workers in Colombia and Brazil” was published by the International Labour Organization and presented in Geneva as a part of The UN refugee agency’s Global Refugee Forum in December 2023. 

The report challenges some of the ways refugees have traditionally been treated. “This project is part of my larger effort to say, there’s another way,” said Gordon. “How about if instead of building tent camps that last for generations, we see [refugees]as equal human beings with a right to work?”

Unlike many refugees around the world who are unable to legally work in their host countries, Venezuelans were granted work permits in Colombia and Brazil and were made eligible for healthcare, education, and—in the long term—citizenship in some cases. “There is much to be learned from these policies and their outcomes, both for the future in countries where Venezuelans have settled and for other contexts of displacement,” writes Gordon in her report.

Through on-the-ground research in the region, supported by a Fordham University Faculty Research Grant, Gordon was able to compile a first-of-its-kind report that she argues can be used as a crucial reference point in adapting refugee policy in other countries.

Gordon’s research ultimately found that, though providing work permits was an important step in economic integration for Venezuelans, issues remained. There was still a risk of Venezuelans being treated unfairly and thus undercutting local wages. And though many highly-educated Venezuelans were able to receive recognition of their professional licenses in their host countries, the majority of Venezuelans do not have post-secondary degrees and worked mostly lower-wage jobs.

As Gordon documented through a series of case studies, unions and civil society organizations in Colombia and Brazil have addressed these labor problems by helping migrants to organize their own associations and to join unions alongside local workers, in order to improve labor conditions for all. 

“If you’re a so-called ‘low-skilled’ or less educated worker earning very low wages, you don’t have the power to stand up on your own and claim your rights, you have to stand together with other people,” said Gordon.  

The medium and longer-term outcomes of some of these developments remains to be seen, Gordon said, but her work has already caught the attention of a number of government agencies and organizations, including USAID, the US State Department and Department of Labor, policy advocates in Peru, and the AFL-CIO.

“We give refugees aid, we give them shelter sometimes, or food, but we don’t think of them as workers,” said Gordon. “They have been people to be helped. But most of them want nothing more than to be people who help themselves and people who can build a life.”


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