Venezuelan Migrants Providing Crucial Labor in South America

Photographs by Carlos Villalon


Coffee grower Oscar Gamboa increasingly relies on a new source of labor for his harvest in the steep hills of northern Colombia: bedraggled and hungry refugees escaping Venezuela’s economic collapse.

By John Otis / The Wall Street Journal

Many Colombians in the area don’t want to do the backbreaking work, or have moved to big cities. So while Venezuelan migrants are often unfairly maligned as vagrants and thieves here and in other South American countries, they are making significant economic contributions across the region, according to the International Monetary Fund, policy groups, Colombia’s central bank and coffee producers like Mr. Gamboa.

“We coffee growers are thanking god for the migrants,” said Mr. Gamboa, noting that about one-third of his 85 coffee pickers come from neighboring Venezuela.

Fleeing food shortages and unemployment back home, nearly 2 million of the 5.4 million Venezuelan who have fled their country since 2015 have settled in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands have taken jobs many Colombians avoid—from harvesting coffee to picking potatoes in the frigid Andes. The newcomers have also founded myriad small businesses.

To help them secure taxpaying employment as well as healthcare and schooling, the Colombian government this month unveiled a program to legalize nearly all of the country’s approximate 1 million undocumented Venezuelans, a move that won praise from the Biden administration, Pope Francis and the United Nations.

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