Life out of the Shadows: Impacts of Amnesties in the Lives of Refugees

Ana María Ibáñez, Andres Moya, María Adelaida Ortega, Sandra Viviana Rozo Villarraga, and Maria Jose Urbina Florez


This paper estimates the causal effects on wellbeing of a regularization program offered to half a million undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. Colombia hosts almost two million Venezuelans displaced abroad.

The Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP) grants undocumented Venezuelan migrants regular status, a work permit to access jobs in the formal sector, access to private services including financial and digital connection services, and the ability to receive a Sisbén score (a metric to determine eligibility for social safety net programs such as subsidized healthcare, public education, early childhood services, and cash transfer).

PEP permits were first issued to more than 180,000 Venezuelans who migrated to Colombia through legal channels. In August 2018, the PEP program was unexpectedly offered to over 440,000 undocumented Venezuelan migrants. Eligibility was based on prior registration in a nationwide refugee census, Registro Administrativo de Migrantes Venezolanos (RAMV) administered between April and June 2018. The RAMV was undertaken to count the number of undocumented Venezuelan migrants and not designed to assess eligibility for a regularization program.

The analysis is based on two phone surveys administered between October 2020 and January 2021 to two subsets of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia: (1) an eligible random sample of 1,100 refugee families who had registered in the RAMV census and who were therefore eligible for the PEP in 2018; and (2) an ineligible sample, including 1,132 refugee families who arrived in Colombia between January 2017 and December 2018 but who did not register in the census and were ineligible for the PEP.

Main findings:

  • The PEP program increased job formalization rates for Venezuelans who were able to regularize their migratory status. Formal employment increased by approximately 10 percentage points—a sizeable effect given the high rate of informality in the Colombian labor market (48 percent).
  • The PEP program increased Sisbén registration and access to financial products. The PEP program also led to large improvements in registration rates in the system that assesses vulnerability and awards public transfers (40 percentage points), and financial services (64.3 percentage points) for PEP holders, relative to those who were ineligible for the program.
  • PEP holders experienced substantial improvements in per capita income, consumption, and overall physical and mental health. PEP holders experienced improvements in per capita consumption (60 percent), income (31 percent), and physical and mental health (1.8 standard deviations) relative to Venezuelans who were ineligible for the program.
  • PEP also appears to have led to improved labor conditions, reduced food insecurity, made PEP beneficiaries more resilient to the negative economic shocks of COVID-19, and contributed to perceptions of a stronger integration into their host communities.

The authors conclude that there are sizeable benefits that accrue from regularization, which contribute to accelerated integration of migrants into their destination countries and improvements in migrant wellbeing. Given that most Venezuelan refugees do not plan to return to Venezuela, the authors suggest that host countries are most likely better off facilitating refugee integration as it reduces the time that refugees are dependent on government support and facilitates their contribution to host societies through taxation.