Amid a migration crisis, a border community in Colombia takes charge of its own development

June 8, 2023
The Fundación Brisas del Norte team outside of their office. The mural behind them says, "Together we build our transformation." Credit: Brian Clark/Pact

Brisas del Norte isn’t an easy place to live. Tucked along the Caribbean coast in Riohacha, Colombia, 90 kilometers from the Venezuelan border, the neighborhood is deeply impoverished. Most houses here are semi-permanent, fashioned by struggling families out of cinder blocks and scraps of wood and corrugated metal. There are few jobs and little relief from the heat, and since migrants started streaming into the area from Venezuela beginning in 2015, more and more families are competing for scant resources. It’s a dynamic that tends to stoke problems such as gender-based violence and conflict between newcomers and receptor communities.

Yet this is also a community on the upswing. Children are increasingly enrolled in school, including Venezuelans, and access to clean water, electricity and health services has improved. Many families have formalized their settlements so they are no longer at risk of being evicted, and thousands of migrants have registered for temporary protection status from the Colombian government, ensuring them certain rights. Colombians here are welcoming their new Venezuelan neighbors.

Much of the progress has been ushered in by Fundación Brisas del Norte, a local, migrant-led organization that Pact and our partners support through the USAID-funded Conectando Caminos por los Derechos project, or CCD. CCD’s partners include Freedom House, Internews and the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative. The project’s overarching aim is to support Colombia’s efforts to prevent and respond to human rights violations among Venezuelan migrants, Colombian returnees and receptor communities, in order to increase community cohesion and citizen security.

Representatives from Fundación Brisas del Norte visit with their neighbors. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact

Much of CCD’s work focuses on building the capacity of local organizations that are working to improve migrants’ lives and foster integration, such as Fundación Brisas del Norte.

“This aligns with Pact’s engaged communities approach,” says Laura Zambrano, CCD’s chief of party. “For us, this means that communities are leading their own development. There’s no such thing as sustainable development without communities at the helm.”

Fundación Brisas del Norte laid its roots several years ago, but it wasn’t until CCD started working with the organization in 2021 that it received resources to directly implement its own initiatives, says Jenny Pardo, the organization’s treasurer and volunteer coordinator and a dual Colombian-Venezuelan who has lived in Brisas del Norte since migrating from Venezuela three years ago.

Pardo explains that Fundación Brisas del Norte started as a small group of settlers who formed a community action board to bring attention to the neighborhood’s vast needs as it grew amid swelling migration. One of its earliest efforts was providing residents with guidance to establish legal rights to stay on land where they’d settled. Then they helped newcomers navigate access to health and education, and the group became known as a trusted helper in the neighborhood.

Through CCD, Pact and its partners have supported more than 50 local organizations and communities that are leading initiatives rooted in their own priorities.

Jenny Pardo. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact

“We more formally started the organization during Covid,” Pardo says. “At the beginning, international organizations contacted us because they had relief supplies to distribute, but they wouldn’t let us manage resources ourselves because they didn’t think we could do it.”

By contrast, CCD provided Fundación Brisas del Norte with capacity development support and gave the organization the opportunity to build on its skills by funding two projects that it designed and implemented itself in alignment with its mission. The projects provided community members with vital training on their legal rights and helped Venezuelans to register for temporary protection status before the May 2022 deadline.

With CCD’s support, Fundación Brisas del Norte has formalized its administrative, financial and other key organizational operations, gaining significant capacity. It has established wide networks with allies and stakeholders across Colombia and beyond, and it has expanded its work and impact thanks to new funding, including a recent two-year grant from UNHCR.

“[CCD] gave us a chance, and it opened the doors for us,” Pardo says. “We showed that we can implement projects if we are trusted with the resources.”

Fundación Brisas del Norte is one of more than 50 local organizations that CCD has supported. This is critical, Zambrano notes, because it means local organizations and communities are leading initiatives rooted in their own priorities. They are already leaders within their communities and have gained people’s trust. For years they have worked tirelessly to solve their communities’ most pressing needs, and they will continue to effectively take on development challenges long after CCD ends.

Jenny Pardo, left, speaks at a CCD partners event in Riohacha. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact

Besides formalizing this neighborhood and improving access to basic services – for migrants and locals alike, to foster community cohesion – Fundación Brisas del Norte has helped thousands of migrants to register for temporary protection status, a feat it accomplished by recruiting and training a volunteer corps known as the Protection Guardians, who played a key role in outreach encouraging Venezuelans to obtain the status.

The organization also trains community leaders and members – again, both Colombians and Venezuelans – on migrants’ rights, and has become skilled in creating communications, including via social media, to share important messages among community members on prevention of abuses, rights protection and attention pathways, including for survivors of gender-based violence. With a focus on community cohesion, it has also organized sports initiatives focused on youth as a means of building social fabric and promoting dialogue between Venezuelan migrants and host communities.

Today, Fundación Brisas del Norte is sharing lessons learned in Riohacha and beyond, to help other border communities to formalize and improve people’s lives.

“We still have a lot of work left,” Pardo says. “So we’ll keep going.”

Conectando Caminos por los Derechos is funded by USAID under the Human Rights Support Mechanism. The project is implemented by a consortium led by Pact that includes the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, Freedom House and Internews.