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OPINION: Colombia has an obligation to grant asylum to Venezuelan women

by Teresa Fernández Paredes | Women's Link Worldwide
Thursday, 20 June 2019 09:45 GMT

Venezuelans line up as they receive a free lunch at the "Divina Providencia" migrant shelter outskirts of Cucuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Colombia February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Granting asylum is an obligation that is binding on all countries. If it is to be fulfilled, the specific forms of violence that women suffer must be considered

Teresa Fernández Paredes is managing attorney at Women's Link Worldwide.

A few months ago, I met Yolimar*, her three-year-old daughter, and her one-and-a-half-year-old son. Yolimar had fled Venezuela and was making her way to Peru to join her sister and start a job that would allow her to support her kids. She told me how the officer on duty at one of the immigrant information centers in the border city of Cúcuta, Colombia, had warned her that if she continued, she would be risking having her children taken away by the Colombian authorities, because she did not have authorization for travel from the children’s father.

What the officer failed—or refused—to realize was that Yolimar had left Venezuela because she did not have the means to support her kids there. She did not have the means because she had had to stop working after her abusive and violent partner left the family and refused to take responsibility for the children.

Today, on World Refugee Day, I can’t stop thinking about Yolimar and the thousands of other women who flee violence to seek a better life for themselves and their children. Each one of them has her own backstory, but all too often, the unique circumstances they face are not taken into account by the authorities charged with granting asylum.

Granting asylum is not an act of generosity—it is an obligation that is binding on all countries. And if it is to be fulfilled, the specific forms of violence that women suffer because they are women must be considered. This has been established in international law over recent decades, as this body of law has evolved and a gender perspective has been applied.

Cases like Yolimar’s exemplify how gender violence and domestic violence can force women to leave their countries. This is the case as well with other forms of violence that affect mainly women, such as trafficking in human beings, a phenomenon that is particularly relevant to the border region between Colombia and Venezuela. We have learned from news reports and organizations working at the border about at least two cases, one in Cartagena and another in Cúcuta, of large groups of Venezuelan women who were potential victims of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, but were never properly identified as such. The authorities indicated that this was partly because they expected the women to identify themselves as victims of trafficking, something victims are often unable to do. All the women were deported or “voluntarily removed” back to Venezuela in violation of asylum law, specifically the non-refoulement principle, which prohibits returning a person to their country of origin when to do so would place that person’s life at risk.

In the case of these women, failing to consider that the specific violence they suffered may be a basis to grant asylum was a serious violation of their human rights in two ways: not only were they returned to a country embroiled in a complex human rights crisis, they were also placed at risk of suffering violence again at the hands of their exploiters.

It is time for governments to commit to implementing asylum policies with a gender perspective, especially as the General Assembly of the Organization of American States draws near, where one of the main issues to be discussed is the situation in Venezuela. The perspectives of migrant women must be included in discussions on how to meet the needs of displaced Venezuelan populations. To fail to include these perspectives would be to ignore the rights of half of the population.

*Name changed to protect her identity