ROME – After acknowledging that he always looks with gratitude to those who assist migrants, Pope Francis on Sunday praised efforts being made by Colombian authorities to grant temporary protection for Venezuelan migrants who have fled their homeland’s economic hardships.

“I join the Bishops of Colombia in expressing gratitude to the Colombian authorities for implementing the temporary protection statute for Venezuelan migrants present in that country, fostering welcoming, protecting and integrating,” Pope Francis said after his weekly Angelus prayer.

He also highlighted that this is an effort being carried out “not by a super wealthy developed country,” but one that has “many problems of development, of poverty and of peace… Almost 70 years of guerrilla war. But with this problem they have had the courage to look at those migrants and to create this statute.”

Announced by President Iván Duque Márquez last week, the initiative will grant a 10-year protection statute to 1.7 million Venezuelans now living in Colombia, granting them permission to stay and the possibility to apply for permanent residency.

Venezuelan migrants hope the measure will make it easier to obtain work and access social services: there are currently over one million undocumented Venezuelans in war-torn Colombia, that only achieved peace through a 2016 agreement that today is contested by many due to the guerrilla’s lack of integration into society.

The relatively surprising announcement was made by Duque last Monday, and it applies to undocumented Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia before 31 January 2021. It also means that hundreds of thousands of migrants who have a legal status won’t need to renew their temporary permits or visas.

The United Nations estimate that there are currently over 5.5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees around the world who have fled the country ruled by socialist Nicolas Maduro, successor of Hugo Chavez. With a crisis that has exploded since the 2013 death of Chavez, the country has long been plagued by food shortages, hyperinflation and an unstable political situation.

Due to the socioeconomic crisis, it is virtually impossible to have a passport issued in Venezuela, and getting an extension of one already issued can take up to a year, so many flee the country without documentation.

In a speech on Feb. 8, Duque, a conservative whose government is closely aligned with the United States, characterized the decision in both humanitarian and practical terms, urging those tuning in to his remarks to have compassion for migrants around the world.

“Migration crises are by definition humanitarian crises,” he said, before stressing that the move by his government would make things easier for officials who need to identify those in need and also to track down anyone who breaks the law.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called Duque’s announcement “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the region in decades. Despite the fact that Colombia still faces a crisis of thousands internally displaced people from the decades-long civil war that plagued the nation, the government has had an approach towards arriving Venezuelans radically different from other countries in the region such as Ecuador, Peru and Chile, which have set up barriers to migration.

In January, Peru sent military tanks to its border with Ecuador to stop migrants – many of them Venezuelans – from crossing into the country, leaving hundreds stranded.

Though often forgotten, the Venezuelan migrant crisis has been, since 2019, comparable to that of Syria, that has six million refugees after a decade of war.

On Sunday, during his post-Angelus remarks, Francis said he was joining the Colombian bishops in praising the decision by the government, who applauded the move soon after it was announced.

“Migrants, refugees, displaced people and victims of trafficking have become emblems of exclusion because, in addition to enduring difficulties due to their migratory status, they are frequently the object of negative judgments or social rejection,” the bishops wrote in a statement last week.

Therefore “it is necessary to move towards attitudes and initiatives that promote the human dignity of all people regardless of their origin in line with the historic capacity of reception of our people.”

The bishops predicted that the implementation of this protection mechanism from the government “will be a fraternal act that opens the doors to guarantee that this population that comes to our territory can enjoy the fundamental rights of all people and can access opportunities for a dignified life.”

In their statement, the prelates also reaffirmed the commitment of the Colombian Church, its dioceses, religious congregations, groups and apostolic movements, with all its pastoral organizations in “giving a comprehensive response to the needs of our brothers and sisters who seek protection in Colombia.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma