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MAICAO, Colombia – “Empuja, vamos, empuja sostenido. Push, come on, keep pushing.”
The doctor chanted it like a mantra at Venezuelan migrant Yulianis Rodriguez from a delivery room in the northern Colombia-Venezuela border city of Maicao.
Rodriguez, 26, was alone in the hospital in May, with no one’s hand to squeeze and no epidural, nothing for the pain other than a bright yellow rag in her mouth to stop her from biting down on her tongue.
She crossed into Colombia months earlier through “trocha,” illegal dirt pathways run by criminal groups, with little more than her Venezuelan ID to her name. After living through Venezuela’s collapsing economy and food and medicine crises, the pregnant Venezuelan hoped she’d be able to get the medical care for her baby that she’d never be able to get in her own country.
“I came to Maicao to be able to have my baby,” she said in Spanish. “To be able to work, to be able to help myself. I’m here because of this crisis.”
Because of Colombia’s citizenship laws, her baby became one of 24,000 children in the South American country who were born “apátrida” – stateless, without a country to call home. Though Colombia is putting in place measures to protect babies like Rodriguez’s, human rights activists worry that those measures are only a temporary solution for a bigger problem.
A stateless person is someone who is not considered a citizen of any country, . Being stateless often is caused by a lack of birthright citizenship, the legal right to citizenship given children born in a country’s territory.
As a result of the exodus of more than 3.7 million Venezuelans from their country, 24,000 Venezuelan babies have been born stateless in Colombia since the beginning of the crisis, according to government data from June.
Colombian law dictates that if at least one parent did not have citizenship or legal permanent residency – a miniscule percentage of the Venezuelans arriving at the country’s doorsteps – the child would not receive Colombian citizenship. That's created a growing number of stateless infants in Colombia, the biggest receiver of the migrants.
That, in turn, made way for what experts called a “more vulnerable” population within an already desperate group of people fleeing Venezuela because stateless individuals often lack access to medical services, education or the ability to vote. They’re effectively in a “legal limbo,” said Juliana Vengoechea, a researcher with the Open Society Foundation, a U.S.-based group that funds independent human rights and justice groups.
“They're stuck in a country without rights, but then they’re not able to exercise freedom of movement,” Vengoechea said.
That changed in August when Colombian President Ivan Duque decreed that Colombia would make an exception for children born to Venezuelan parents and give Colombian citizenship to those children and to babies born over the next two years.
Human rights defenders called the decree a temporary fix to a larger problem. They worry that the damage done by Colombia’s constitution may have had a ripple effect on the children and their families.
“The constitution of Colombia is still the same,” said Florencia Reggiardo, attorney and coordinator of the Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness.
Venezuela’s migration crisis began in 2016, when the economy went into a freefall and brought with it shortages in food and medicine and an emerging medical crisis. As the situation worsened in 2018 and 2019, pregnant women such as Rodriguez flooded into Colombia to give birth and seek medical aid difficult to find in Venezuela.
“There was nothing,” Rodriguez said. “Here, at least I have the chance of getting the medical services.”
For years, Colombia did not provide automatic birthright citizenship – or jus soli, the “right to the soil” – to those simply born in the nation. Though Rodriguez’s baby did qualify for citizenship in Venezuela, it’s virtually impossible to obtain. Rodriguez and her baby would have to travel back to Venezuela, but the country is sinking deeper into political violence, food and medicine shortages.
Though Colombia's rule change marks a significant turning point for the children born without a nationality, Reggiardo said, the country will struggle to provide legal status to those children because many parents don’t know their children were born without a nationality in the first place.
Up until August, the parents were given a “certificado nacido vivo,” a birth certificate that many mistook as testament their child is a Colombian citizen.
A line at the bottom said otherwise: “Not valid for nationality.”
That important fact was largely unknown among many of the women streaming across the Venezuela border.
In the maternity ward in Hospital San Jose, a public hospital in Maicao, about half the women interviewed by USA TODAY said they thought their baby would be born Colombian. Most others said they thought their child would be Venezuelan.
Mothers such as Liliana Gonzalez, 23, were simply confused.
Gonzalez had been staying in a dusty, informal migrant settlement on the border and, like Rodriguez, had come to Maicao to give birth. She wanted to have her baby in her home of Maracaibo – a city devastated by the blackouts that swept through Venezuela in March – but had to flee to Colombia for medical care.
“I’m scared, because I don’t know if he’s Venezuelan or Colombian,” Gonzalez said in May, peering down at her newborn baby snuggled in the crook of her arm. “I don’t have a paper that tells me, well, who he is.”
As Colombia attempts to resolve its emerging human rights crisis, it’s unclear how many of the parents of these babies will know what resources they have to access their child’s nationality, or even know that their child doesn’t have a nationality.
This lack of knowledge of resources and basic documentation has been one of the core problems in the exodus of millions of migrants from Venezuela. Migrants cross the Venezuela border in desperate conditions, sometimes walking for days and in various states of starvation or deteriorated health. They often lack basic documentation such as valid passports because it’s become practically impossible to access those papers in the collapsing country.
For many, the complex legal maze that the statelessness situation presented is not the foremost concern; rather, it’s more basic human needs such as access to food, shelter and work.
Birthright citizenship gained an international spotlight after President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise that he would end the U.S. constitutional right of birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.
Trump railed against the idea of migrants using their child’s birthright citizenship to stay in the USA without being deported. In October, the president told the Axios website in an interview that he wanted to use his executive power to end birthright citizenship.
“We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years ... with all of those benefits,” Trump said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”
More than 30 other countries have similar birthright citizenship laws, most in the Western Hemisphere. Other countries that eliminated birthright citizenship have seen the rise of stateless populations, sometimes referred to as “ghost citizens.”
Worldwide, about 15 million people are stateless, according to the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI), an international nonprofit group. Every year, about 70,000 children are born into statelessness, according to the ISI.
For decades in the Caribbean, undocumented Haitian women fleeing deep poverty crossed to the neighboring nation of the Dominican Republic.
They gave birth to children who were legally Dominican, but for years, the Dominican government imposed increasingly stricter birthright citizenship policies on children of Haitian descent. In 2013, a ruling stripped Dominican nationality from anyone born to undocumented parents or grandparents since 1929.
Those residents were unable to access education or medical services, find work or vote in the only place they had ever called home. As part of the long history of persecution of people of Haitian descent in the country, they became victims of xenophobic attacks and even expulsion from the Dominican Republic, according to Jonathan Katz, a national fellow at the D.C.-based New America who covered Haitian statelessness as a journalist for The Associated Press.
“It’s like all the things they need to do to live a healthy and complete life have suddenly been made impossible for them,” he said.
Colombia’s legal framework may have had a ripple effect as the exodus of migrants spreads across Latin America. Colombia is the largest receiver of Venezuelans in the world and has accepted more than 1.2 million migrants. It’s a transit zone, a place Venezuelans pass through on their way to countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina, which have all accepted hundreds of thousands of migrants.
Those children born stateless who passed into other countries will effectively remain stateless, Reggiardo said, forced to return to Colombia or Venezuela to gain legal recognition.
“A big problem is the children that were born in Colombia with this (legal) situation, who after that, migrate again with their parents to other countries in the region,” she said. “These children, they have to travel to Colombia to request their nationality.”
For many who arrive on their last leg to other countries around Latin America without food, shelter or documentation, that journey back is impossible.
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