On Venezuela’s Border with Colombia, the Need for Papers Threatens an Indigenous Way of Life

Since pre-Columbian times, the traditional lands of the Wayuu people have straddled what is now the northern border between Colombia and Venezuela, on the arid Guajira Peninsula. Estimated to number around 300,000, the Wayuu frequently move back and forth over the border, often spending the dry season on the Venezuelan side, and the rainy season in Colombia.

Both countries grant the Wayuu dual nationality, in acknowledgement of their cross-border existence. But this has not prevented them being caught up in recent efforts by Venezuela to tighten controls and periodically to close crossings on its border with Colombia, in an effort to stop smuggling.

The tightening of border controls, and the closure of crossings that started in 2015, pose a grave threat for the Wayuu, who often lack official identity documents such as state-issued birth certificates or identity cards. And while the constitutions theoretically grant them dual nationality, in practice local officials often ignore this, leaving some Wayuus with only one nationality, and unable to cross the border as easily as they once did. Others have been denied official documents by both countries, leaving them in a state of unconfirmed nationality―effectively stateless.

In addition, the border problems are adding to additional challenges to the Wayuu caused by a seven-year drought that has smitten the region. In this situation, having official identity documents is essential for accessing desperately needed government services and emergency relief. Already struggling to reach food and drinking water in a remote, sparsely populated region, the Wayuus are especially hard hit by restrictions on their freedom of movement.

This shouldn’t be happening.

Like most countries in South America, Colombia’s constitution provides for jus soli citizenship, in which nationality is usually granted automatically to anyone born in the country’s territory. In theory, jus soli is the simplest and most straightforward form of citizenship, and the most likely to prevent statelessness. But in practice, many people in the region struggle to obtain proof of citizenship and fully enjoy their citizenship rights. Some are left stateless, unable to access critical government services such as schooling and health care.

Now, new research is examining the significant divergence between the promise of jus soli citizenship and its implementation on the ground in Colombia, Brazil, and Chile. The report, Born in the Americas, finds that this gap between the promise and practice of citizenship laws most often affects indigenous peoples, members of ethnic minority groups, internally displaced persons, and children. For example, many Wayuus don’t speak Spanish or give birth in hospitals, making it difficult for them to officially register their children’s births.

Based on a comprehensive review and analysis of the history, laws, and practices of Colombia, Brazil, and Chile, Born in the Americas identifies harmful gaps in current citizenship practices and recommends concrete solutions. In the case of the Wayuus, these include simplifying the birth-registration process, accepting alternative means of proof of birth, providing better training and oversight for local officials, and increasing mobile registration in remote areas such as the Guajira Peninsula.

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