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Colombia: Santos grants 440,000 Venezuela refugees two-year help

Outgoing president grants refugees two-year temporary residency permits, allowing them to study and get medical care.

Colombia at the border in Paraguachon

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has granted 440,000 refugees from neighbouring Venezuela two years of help, while urging leaders in the region to stem the spreading humanitarian crisis.

Santos, who leaves office on Tuesday, granted the refugees two-year temporary residency permits, allowing them to study, work and get medical care that many need after arriving with untreated ailments.

 "The whole world is increasingly terrified of what is happening in Venezuela," Santos said speaking from the presidential palace in the capital, Bogota, on Thursday.

Venezuelans struggle to afford scarce food and medicine under soaring inflation - driving masses across borders.

Santos condemned Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for the crisis, in a statement that comes amid a tense political situation between Colombia and Venezuela

The Colombian president said that more than one million Venezuelans have fled into Colombia in the last 18 months.

Translation: I reiterate my condemnation of the Venezuelan regime. A regime that does not listen and that remains in a state of total denial. I insist on allowing a humanitarian channel to relieve the suffering of its people, President Santos wrote on Twitter. 

While critical of Maduro, Santos said his country is willing to help those suffering.

"They are Colombians returning to the country," Santos said. "They are Venezuelans. They are Colombian-Venezuelan families, and they're returning in precarious conditions."

Money exchanges 

Separately, as the crisis in Venezuela - whose economy enters its fifth year of recession - deepens, the country's Constituent Assembly voted to legalise money exchange operations on Thursday, with the aim of relaxing the strict currency controls imposed by the government.

READ MORE: Venezuela's worst economic crisis: What went wrong?

The measure's reach was not immediately clear but the pro-government assembly agreed to revoke the law that criminalises money exchange and eliminate an article from the law governing the Venezuelan Central Bank to allow the sale and purchase of foreign currency.

Tareck El Aissami, the vice president for the economy, said Venezuelans would be able to go to state-authorised exchange houses to exchange money in a "transparent, legal and safe manner".

"This is a big opportunity. It is a fresh start," said El Aissami in a speech at the pro-government assembly to propose the reform. He did not provide details on how an exchange rate would be determined.

The government currently fixes sales of dollars at an official rate of 172,800 bolivars per US dollar, well below the black market rate of around 3.6m bolivars per US dollar.

Venezuelan exchange

Venezuela's bolivar currency has fallen 99.99 percent against the US dollar on the black market since Maduro came to power in April 2013.

A $100 purchase of bolivars then would now be worth just less than a single US cent.

Maduro blames the crisis on an economic war led by opposition leaders with the help of Washington, which last year levied several rounds of sanctions against his administration. 

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