BOGOTÁ, Colombia — In a grassland lot overlooking one of Bogotá’s sewage-strewn canals, nearly 300 Venezuelan refugees and migrants have set up a makeshift camp. Tents, some built ad hoc with scrap and tarpaulin, sprawl the plot of land just a block from the Colombian capital’s main bus terminal. Many of the structures house families with infant children.
This is the face of a crisis that has been escalating over the past two years. Unable to cope with economic turmoil and soaring crime at home, millions of Venezuelans are electing to up sticks for neighboring Colombia, or further afield in South America.
“They need urgent help ... I put myself in their situation, and as a mother of two children, I have to do something.”— Paola Avendaño, a veterinary surgeon in Colombia
“I’ve been here for two days,” said Jesus Sentella, a 27-year old from Barinas, a city some 1,000 kilometers from Bogotá. “I’m dreaming of a better future, hopefully in Peru,” he added while waiting outside a church that offers food and clothing donations for migrants and refugees. Like many of his compatriots, Sentella hopes to travel beyond Colombia where opportunities are more bountiful. Meanwhile, he relies on the goodwill and solidarity of locals.
The United Nations Refugee Agency reported this month that 3 million Venezuelans have now fled the country. Most cite rampant crime, hyperinflation, and a shortage of basic goods — including medicine and food staples — as reasons for leaving the oil-rich nation. Many depart with only what they can carry, including wads of cash that have been rendered worthless by inflation.
No country has borne as much of the brunt of this exodus as Colombia, which currently houses over 1 million Venezuelans, according to UNHCR. Bogotá, the city with the best promise of work, has become a flashpoint. Here, civil society response has given a lifeline to desperate Venezuelans.
“We have a responsibility to help. These are our brothers and sisters,” said Estela Almorasid, who works at the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de La Medalla Milagrosa, the nearby Catholic church where Sentella was waiting for handouts. Alongside regular donation drives, her church also provides over 150 meals a week, prepared in the houses of volunteers and served to migrants and refugees outside the bus terminal. “The situation here is incredibly difficult; there’s too many people arriving, and too many people asking for things,” she said.
One person donating is Paola Avendaño, a veterinary surgeon. “I’m collecting unwanted clothes from my neighbors because the situation with Venezuelans in Bogotá has become so precarious. They need urgent help,” she said, while a group of migrants and refugees lined up outside her car, waiting for donations. “It’s so sad to think of a country as rich in resources as Venezuela, that is now forcing its people to leave ... I put myself in their situation, and as a mother of two children, I have to do something,” she said.
As well as churches, other institutions have also been organizing solidarity efforts. Universidad de los Andes, a top-ranked private university in Bogotá, is holding a series of “brigades,” to provide legal services to Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have been forced into prostitution or suffered violence while fleeing, and information about what access they have to health services.
Despite the largely generous reception from Colombians in Bogotá and beyond, tackling nascent xenophobia toward the growing Venezuelan population has proven a challenge, and instances of mob violence against Venezuelans are sporadically documented.
Colombia is a country more accustomed to generating refugees than accepting them. Its 52-year civil war left more than 7 million people internally displaced, with those recently forced to flee living in comparable situations to their newly-arrived neighbors. A perception among host communities persists that Venezuelans are depriving them of the informal day work — often in housework or construction — they rely on.
A recent World Bank report advised Colombia that it could use the opportunity to its economic advantage by legalizing migrants. “Despite short-term negative impacts, the evidence suggests that if adequate policy decisions are taken, migration has the potential to generate growth in Colombia,” the report said.
But civil society groups are moving to quell what they see as rising tensions. “We have seen a lot of media focusing on Venezuelans committing crimes without presenting any wider context,” said Rocío Castañeda, spokesperson for UNHCR Colombia’s campaign to combat xenophobia.
Somos Panas — meaning “we are buddies” in Spanish — aims to correct the negative messaging, Castañeda said: “There is great solidarity at an individual level, from people donating items and sharing their Wi-Fi with Venezuelans ... but we could definitely see more done to improve the representation of migrants in the media.”
The camp near the bus terminal could only house 150 people, with another 150 setting themselves up in an improvised settlement outside its boundaries. Earlier this month, citing health and security concerns, local officials moved them to a new site just a stone’s throw from a major highway. Some locals protested the migrants and refugees’ arrival.
Funded by the city, the new camp boasts 78 tents and serves food, with Red Cross doctors in attendance. City authorities consulted with officials across Europe on the design, drawing on their experience in setting up camps for Syrian refugees.
Still, some say they preferred the previous camp, which was less strictly controlled. A spat over regulations between migrants and refugees housed there and city officials resulted in a handful of Venezuelans being expelled, just a week after it opened.
"We call for understanding and solidarity with the residents where the humanitarian camp will be located,” Maria Angélica Trujillo, the new government czar for Venezuelan migrants, told reporters.
“It is a population that is in a high state of vulnerability and we work every day to make this camp safe, with strict rules of cohabitation … We need the help and understanding of the neighbors, residents, and people who work in the area,” she said.