A staff member with the Colombian Red Cross shares information with Venezuelans at a humanitarian outpost outside Cúcuta, Colombia. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

CÚCUTA, Colombia — They walk slowly along the side of the highway as it snakes up the mountain outside this city, a route that will only get higher and colder as they approach Bogotá. Many are wearing plastic sandals and carry their belongings in worn backpacks and duffels, while others drag roller bags behind them. Mothers breastfeed their babies as cars whiz by, while small children are ushered along, sometimes stopping to sit on a guardrail.

Many of the people who are now fleeing a lack of basic food and medical supplies in Venezuela do not have the resources to travel via bus or plane, so they are making the journey into Colombia and beyond by foot. They’re known as “caminantes,” a Spanish word for walkers. And they are walking throughout Colombia, and into other countries such as Ecuador and Peru, as they escape economic collapse in their country.

“One thousand new people are starting to walk every day.”

— Christian Visnes, Latin America director, Norwegian Refugee Council

The situation is posing a challenge for NGOs — which have traditionally not had to stand up humanitarian responses in Colombia — to effectively meet the needs of poor, vulnerable, and mobile migrants and asylum-seekers. Much of the international response has been centralized in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta with protection spaces, food distribution, and medical facilities. But as Venezuelans seek to move on, NGOs must meet their needs along the migrant route.

An estimated 9 percent of the Venezuelan population — 2.7 million people — is now living outside the country. Colombia has taken in the most Venezuelans, already numbering more than 1 million.

Christian Visnes, Latin America director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the fact that there are currently no refugee camps is positive. But less than 50 percent of the asylum-seeker and migrant population is along the border, while the remainder is dispersed along migrant routes and throughout the country, he said.

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“What we see now is in almost any community along the route of the Pan-American Highway and some of the other routes, you have people staying,” Visnes said. “One thousand new people are starting to walk every day and it takes them weeks. But a number of them would stay along the route, in Bucaramanga, here in Bogotá, in Cali. That’s a huge challenge. So how do you respond to that?”

The Colombian Red Cross has set up checkpoints along the migrant route to provide basic services to caminantes. This includes medical attention, water, bathrooms, outlets to charge cell phones and computers, internet, and phones with international calling to help reestablish family contact. Staffers also provide pocket maps and information about the route out of the city, including warnings about the cold weather to come as the road carries the caminantes into the mountains toward Bogotá.

The Red Cross distributes a voluntary survey to migrants and asylum-seekers to learn more about the population and what services they need. Questions include: where they are from in Venezuela, why they left, who they are traveling with, and where they are going.

Often, people don’t have an answer to that last question. According to the Red Cross, many caminantes don’t have an end destination in mind, while others are traveling to join family or friends in other Colombian cities or in other countries. Many people have expressed interest in reaching Peru, where it is easier to get permits to work legally. In Colombia, applicants for asylum are not allowed to work while the application is being reviewed.

After three years, Red Cross responses have evolved to be more structured, a Red Cross staffer at the outpost outside Cúcuta told Devex. Most outposts start as just a shelter distributing water and a snack, but gradually expand as the needs of those passing through increase.

“We arrive and start asking the population ‘what do you have? What do you want?,’” the staffer said. “Based on this analysis, we develop the program.”

At the Red Cross checkpoints, those in need of medical attention undergo an interview with a nurse where basic vitals are taken and cases are prioritized by severity, then, they wait to see a doctor who can prescribe basic medicines. The facility also provides psychosocial support, giving people a chance to speak with someone about things that may have happened to them along a route rife with violence, human trafficking, and sexual abuse.

“Caminantes” walk on the side of the road that runs between Cúcuta and Bucaramanga in Colombia. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

Serving mixed migrant flows

NGOs are currently looking to expand their presence to other cities along the Colombian border receiving an influx of Venezuelans, but receiving less attention than the area surrounding Cúcuta.

The UN Refugee Agency opened a reception center on March 8 in Maicao, a city in the northern department of La Guajira. The facility is the first of its kind in Colombia, designed to meet the needs of Venezuelans in an area of the country where they represent the highest concentration per capita. According to UNHCR, assessments aimed at measuring needs in the area determined that 81 percent of interviewees needed shelter.

“It’s a small center because, in La Guajira, the situation is so dire that many people — children, pregnant women, families — have been sleeping on the street for months. And that’s why we decided to have a more direct response in that area. The needs are tremendous,” said UNHCR’s Colombia country representative Jozef Merkx, noting a large indigenous population in both the host community and migration flow.

UNHCR is focusing its attention on facilitating access to food, water, and services such as health and education, strengthening shelter networks, and providing legal counseling.

This is complex, Merkx said, because there are four different populations it serves as part of the mixed migrant flows: Venezuelans who intend to stay in Colombia; those who intend to move on to a third country; those in the border region who move back and forth consistently between the two countries; and Colombians who migrated to Venezuela but are now returning to their home country.

Save the Children, which is also operating along the border in areas other than Cúcuta, focuses its response on the risks posed to children who are migrating, such as those out of school. The lack of data surrounding the population and its needs has been a challenge, said Maria Paula Martinez, country director of Save the Children Colombia. In the department of Arauca, where the organization has three temporary education spaces, much of the surrounding population do not have access to potable water, food, medicine, or health services either.

“We don’t have camps — for now. But we have some plastic houses, people living in very difficult conditions,” Martinez said. “We have so many organizations in Cúcuta doing a great job as well, so between all the organizations that were taking part in the humanitarian architecture in Colombia, we concluded that Save the Children had a specific space and added value in Arauca and La Guajira.”

These border departments also have the added risk of instability from operations of numerous illegal groups, which makes protection for migrants and asylum-seekers even more complex in areas where Colombian people are internally displaced, impacted by decades of armed conflict. Venezuelans on the move often aren’t aware of the conditions and safety in such areas.

“Through our IDP work in some of the still more vulnerable areas of the country where violence is increasing, we’re seeing Venezuelans show up in these areas,” said Hugh Aprile, Mercy Corps’ Colombia country director. “It’s just a lack of information — and they’re making migration decisions that could lead them into more dangerous places.”

The remaining instability in some areas of Colombia is another reason NGOs must be there to support the government response across the country, Aprile said.

“We can’t let Colombia fail. This can’t be put on the shoulders of the Colombian government. There are already so many other things going on here right now that we can’t forget about,” Aprile said. “We have to help Colombia and we have to be here to help this government address the situation, because a Colombia that fails is a whole region that collapses along with it.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.