,Venezuelan migrants are seen inside a coliseum where a temporary camp has been set up, after fleeing their country due to military operations, according to the Colombian migration agency, in Arauquita, Colombia. — Reuters
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SOACHA, Colombia: When Colombia offered millions of Venezuelans who had fled chaos at home a fresh start and life of legality, the United Nations called the offer “historic” and migrants couldn’t wait to apply.
Then reality set it.
Without a mobile phone or laptop, no access to Internet and little in the way of digital skills, how were families even to apply for the new status and submit their slew of documents?
“It would be amazing to get my papers sorted out and walk around freely without fear of being deported,” said Venezuelan migrant Esneiro Gonzalez.
But the landmark gesture announced by Colombia in February has since revealed a deep digital divide that unintentionally excludes many of the very people it set out to help.
People like Gonzalez: a 41-year-old electrician and father of two, who fled his homeland four years ago, and has since operated on the margins of life in next-door Colombia.
“Being irregular, I can’t get a good job and healthcare in Colombia,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Winning the legal status could let some 2.2 million people like him regularise their shaky status, work legally, claim some benefits and live without fear of deportation.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) hailed the 10-year Temporary Protected Status (TPS) on offer as the region’s most important humanitarian gesture in decades.
The only problem was that about half of the people it aimed to help couldn’t work out how to get near it.
“I don’t have access to the Internet or a high-end smartphone, and I’m not good with technology,” said Gonzalez, after his initial elation waned in the face of technology.
Some 5.4 million Venezuelans have emigrated in recent years, fleeing political turmoil and a humanitarian crisis in their homeland, crises only exacerbated by the pandemic.
Most have fled to countries across South America, with neighbouring Colombia the destination of choice.
But since registration began in May, fewer than a million Venezuelans who live in Colombia have completed registration online – a prerequisite for what is a long road to TPS.
But there are at least 800,000 more migrants, people like Gonzalez, who are eligible and keen to integrate yet find it difficult to register online, raising fears they could miss out.
So those on the wrong side of the digital divide – most of whom live in poor city areas and aren’t tech savvy – are being courted by NGOs and the UNHCR to ensure they don’t miss out.
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Inside a church building in Soacha, a hillside slum outside the capital Bogota, Gonzalez is one of about 60 Venezuelans who are given guidance each day on how to register online.