BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia on Thursday temporarily granted more than 440,000 migrants from Venezuela permission to stay in the country for two years and access social services, as hundreds of thousands flee a devastating economic crisis in neighbouring Venezuela.
The decree, signed by President Juan Manuel Santos, is directed at 442,462 Venezuelans without visas, stamped passports or other permission to live in Colombia who registered in a recent two-month survey.
Colombia has borne the brunt of the migration from Venezuela, where hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and crime have forced many to leave their homes.
Estimates of how many Venezuelans have left their home country during the tenures of former President Hugo Chavez and current leader Nicolas Maduro vary widely, with some opponents and academics putting the figure at 4 million. Maduro insists that is an exaggeration.
Maduro has said his country is the victim of an "economic war" led by opposition leaders with the help of Washington, but his critics say the problems are the result of the government's currency and price controls as well as declining production of oil.
Colombia had asked Venezuelans to register in the survey if they did not have work or tourism visas, dual citizenship, or some other type of formal permission to remain, so it could assess the need for social services.
Many Venezuelan migrants arrive in Colombia with little money with which to begin new lives.
Some 250,000 Colombians who had been living in Venezuela have also returned home recently.
"We will continue to support the Venezuelans and the returning Colombians, just as we have been doing up to this moment," Santos said in a statement. "This is an international milestone in migration issues."
All the Venezuelans will have access to emergency medical care and be able to participate in the social security system, while pregnant women will have prenatal care, the statement said.
Venezuelan children will continue to be enrolled at public schools, while adults will have help looking for work via the same job centres used by Colombians.
The government will spend 20 billion pesos ($6.9 million) to repay hospitals that have treated migrants including women in labour and those suffering from cancer and diabetes, the statement said.
Santos, who leaves office on Tuesday, reiterated his criticism of Maduro's government.
"The whole world is ever more terrified by what is happening in Venezuela," Santos said. "Such a rich country, a country with the largest oil reserves in the whole world, with a population that is dying of hunger and dying of disease for lack of medicine."
President-elect Ivan Duque has heartily criticized Maduro's policies and his treatment of the Venezuelan opposition.
($1 = 2,892.62 Colombian pesos)
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Phil Berlowitz)