BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia said on Friday it will give special visa extensions to more than 150,000 Venezuelans in Colombia who have over-stayed their permits ahead of a controversial assembly vote in Venezuela on Sunday.
Venezuelans fleeing acute food shortages, high crime and political unrest have flooded across the border to Colombia in recent years. Some visit to buy groceries, while others begin lives from scratch, often working informally and without residency visas.
The measure, effective immediately, will apply to Venezuelans with expired temporary visas as well as those with tourist visas who wish to remain, the foreign ministry and migration authority said in a joint statement. The extension lasts for 90 days and can be renewed for up to two years.
The measure may be an effort by Colombia to get a handle on just how many Venezuelans are living in the country with expired or tourist visas. Some families were leaving Venezuela ahead of a Sunday vote for a controversial legislative superbody that the opposition says will be used to create a dictatorship.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says the 545-member assembly, which will have the power to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions, will bring peace to the country after four months of opposition protests that have left at least 111 people dead. Opposition parties are boycotting the vote.
Venezuelans have 90 days to apply for the extension, which will not be allowed for those without entry stamps in their passports, those with criminal records or people already in the process of being deported.
"This measure is meant to help Venezuelan citizens who have complied with migration rules but due to different factors currently find themselves in an irregular situation or have permissions that are about to expire," the statement said.
Venezuelans who get the extension will be allowed to work and study, Christian Kruger, the head of Colombia's migration authority said in the statement.
The extensions "should be understood by migrants as Colombia's vote of confidence in them," Kruger said.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)