BY: LUCÍA RAMÍREZ BOLÍVAR AND SILVIA RUIZ*
We met Yamile one Saturday night in Transmilenio, Bogotá’s bus rapid transit system. Seeing her play with her 2 year old daughter Candelaria while trying to sell peanuts at the bus station caught our eye. Yamile is from Venezuela and arrived to Bogotá just 15 days ago. When we asked her why she had decided to migrate, she looked at us with surprise and disbelief. "The girl needs milk and in Venezuela a jar costs more than the monthly minimum wage." Yamile works in public transport alongside Candelaria, since she has no one to leave her with.
Yamile and Candelaria are two of the thousands of Venezuelans who are migrating to other countries in the continent. Although there are no exact figures on the magnitude of the Venezuelan exodus and much less on its demographic characteristics, studies estimate that during this year, about 15% of the population will have left the country. According to the World Bank, in 2016 there were about 9 million people in Venezuela between 0 and 14 years of age, which means that it is likely that about one and a half million of them had to migrate. This fact raises important challenges for recipient countries in terms of policies to support migrant children and, especially, on access to education.
In addition to the obstacles that Yamile faces on a daily basis, she encountered other requirements when she wanted to enroll Candelaria at a kindergarten: multiple medical examinations, health insurance, and a work certificate. Although these seem like reasonable requirements, for Yamile and many other Venezuelan parents, it is very difficult to comply with them because they either do not have the resources, entered the country irregularly, or do not have a formal job. For the time being, Candelaria will not be able to start the school year.
Although the Colombian government has called attention to the need to guarantee the fundamental right to education for girls and boys, without distinction of their nationality and migratory status, the lack of information by many school directives has resulted in many Venezuelan girls and boys being unable to attend school. Many establishments require passports, student visas, birth certificates, and certified studies, documents that given the extreme vulnerability in which these children and their families arrive, are very difficult to obtain. However, there is no unified policy on this issue as other schools do not require any documents. Adding to this confusion, a recent sentence by the Constitutional Court states that a student visa is necessary for school enrollment.
The difficulties to obtain the documents stem from the cost or the complexity of the processes due to the institutional crisis that Venezuela is going through. Also, if children cannot prove their previous studies, they must submit a placement test, which has no fixed cost since every public institution determines it. If children do not meet these requirements, many cannot begin their studies or in the case of those who manage to enroll, they end up being eventually withdrawn for not meeting them within the established time.
Unlike Candelaria, other Venezuelan children who have migrated to other countries have been able to access education thanks to the existence of inclusive immigration norms or policies that Colombia could learn from. Countries such as Argentina and Chile have exempted children from the legalization requirements of previous studies or have created identification systems to guarantee this right while they are given a visa specially created for them.
Likewise, in response to the flow of Colombians of the last two decades, Ecuador included within the 2008 Constitution the right of foreigners to the full enjoyment of State services including education. In addition, it legally recognized the special needs of migrant children as a vulnerable population for human mobility related reasons.
In France and the United States , the schooling of foreign children is treated in the same way as that of nationals - without considering their immigration status - and it is compulsory and free of charge. In addition, both countries have legislation and programs to support these children's school performance and instruct their teachers. Similarly, in Italy and Belgium, this fundamental right is protected regardless of their immigration status. In none of these countries is access to education subject to documents that can be very difficult to secure due to the circumstances in which this population leaves their country of origin.
Access to education is a universal fundamental right that, in addition to promoting human development, provides a safe and stable space for boys and girls in a situation of vulnerability. Therefore, access barriers not only reduce the chances of overcoming the serious humanitarian situation of migrant children, but also contradict States’ international obligations.
According to the ESCR Committee, to recognize and respect the right to education of children without discrimination based on nationality or immigration status is a State's core obligation. Likewise, the guarantee of this right is fulfilled only if there is institutional availability so that all children can attend classes, if it is accessible materially and economically and without discrimination, if the pedagogical programs are of good quality and if they respond to cultural and social needs and changes. By failing to make the requirements for accessing education more flexible and ignoring the practical impediments faced by migrant children, States would be violating their fundamental right to education.
Candelaria's country of origin closed school’s doors for her. Will other States do the same? Based on legal duties and mandates of solidarity, Colombia and other countries that are receiving migrants must guarantee access to education policies to children and reformulate their education so that it meets their needs. Among other changes, an inclusive education policy must include mechanisms to clearly establish the exact number of migrant children who need to enter the education system, make the requirements for entering school more flexible, standardize the costs of certification processes of previous studies in the country of origin, and advance training programs for directives and teachers so that they promote a supportive environment for them.
Lucía Ramírez Bolívar is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @aydalucia.
*Silvia Ruiz is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia). She can be reached at email@example.com or @silviaaruizm.
Featured photo: Sebastian Januszevski