CÚCUTA, Colombia — At daybreak every morning, the Simón Bolívar bridge on the Colombia-Venezuela border heaves with foot traffic. Mothers and their infant children walk across, while savvy entrepreneurs earn small change carting their luggage in hand trucks.
Colombian border authorities do not know exactly how many are crossing each day, but they say 20,000 would be a conservative estimate. These people are fleeing Venezuela, a country that is oil rich but mired in economic and political crisis. Some cross temporarily to find work, food, or medicine; others choose to stay.
The economic policies of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro caused inflation to reach more than 2,400 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Food shortages in supermarkets are widespread, while the military, loyal to Maduro, handles public food distribution centers. Those fleeing say that only those in the regime’s favor receive handouts. Many instead turn to the black market where prices are exorbitant. A recent study by three Venezuelan universities found that two-thirds of survey respondents had lost over 11 kilograms in weight during 2017.
The Colombian government is undertaking a campaign to count the number of Venezuelan migrants who have fled their country’s collapse to get a sense of who has crossed the border and what services they need, so it can best cater to a wave of people flooding into its eastern departments.
The turmoil caused about 550,000 Venezuelans to flee last year to Colombia, which shares a porous 2,219-km border with its eastern neighbor. A country more accustomed to producing refugees than receiving them, Colombian authorities are struggling to adapt to the humanitarian needs of fleeing Venezuelans, and international NGOs are worried about their capacity to assist.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is currently running an appeal for $46 million to assist displaced Venezuelans across the region, including those that have fled to Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and further afield. But a spokesperson said just 6 percent of the appeal has so far been raised, and many observers believe the figure is far too low to begin with.
Many worry that the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees crossing the border will now end up stuck in temporary camps that were intended only to offer them shelter on arrival.
Bridge to Colombia
The first destination for many who arrive at the official border crossing of the Simón Bolívar bridge is Cúcuta, a sprawling, dusty city where unemployment is high.
Neicy Rosalis, 24, and Jhonny Monsalve, 28, abandoned their home in the central Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto at the end of June last year, bringing just their 5-year-old daughter and a suitcase of clothes. They say they could no longer afford to feed their child and worried every day about her future.
“We went hungry so she wouldn’t,” Rosalis said, in a shelter in downtown Cúcuta run by the Scalabrini International Migration Network, where she and her family have been staying since they arrived.
“If we ate lunch, we would skip dinner; if we ate dinner, we would skip lunch. That way she could eat more.”
Alongside hunger, widespread crime has taken root across Venezuela.
“Everywhere you look, you can see people with guns riding along on motorbikes. Guns in people’s faces, robbing everyone,” Monsalve said. “Venezuela is a country rich with oil, copper, gold, and more and yet people are killing each other over a kilo of flour.”
The funds being raised by UNHCR are intended to be allocated across eight thematic needs, with 26 percent earmarked for ensuring fair protection processes and documentation of displaced Venezuelans. Over $8 million will be set aside for community empowerment and self-reliance, should the target be reached.
Should UNHCR fall short of their target, there is great concern about the consequences.
“Poor contributions will severely constrain UNHCR contingency preparedness, planning and response, and support to receiving countries to build theirs,” according to a document attached to the appeal. “Both will become overwhelmed, placing the safety and well-being of the Venezuelan arrivals in greater peril.”
The International Organization for Migration has also launched a regional plan in response to the crisis. Requiring $32.3 million to implement, it is focused on data collection and dissemination, capacity building and coordination, direct support, and socioeconomic integration.
The Colombian government signed a peace deal with the FARC rebel group in 2016, throwing open the possibility of development in long-abandoned corners of the nation. But as armed groups battle for control in FARC's absence, aid workers and locals in many areas are finding themselves in as much danger as ever — and humanitarian assistance is on the retreat just when it is needed most.
Complicating the response in Colombia is a reduction in funding for humanitarian organizations following a government peace deal with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in late 2016. The deal formally ended 52 years of civil war, leading donors to begin to withdraw humanitarian assistance from the country: It received just over $39 billion in humanitarian funding last year, the lowest sum for at least a decade.
New arrivals aside, humanitarian needs still abound.
The latest report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that 4.9 million people in Colombia — 10 percent of the population — are in need of humanitarian assistance. Yet OCHA’s mandate in Colombia is due to expire at the end of the year.
“We hope that the crisis we are seeing with Venezuela will motivate donors to continue to provide assistance to Colombia,” said Gerard Gómez, OCHA’s representative in the country.
Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, added that the international community needs a “coordinated and generous humanitarian response” that provides “for both humanitarian and protection needs."
The United States recently promised $2.5 million to Colombia in order to provide food and medical care for Venezuelans — something Haugaard described as “a drop in the bucket.”
Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the Democratic Party, has called for a donor conference to coordinate assistance. A lack of accurate data on the Venezuelan arrivals is also making it harder for Colombia to secure the right support, although a new effort for a refugee and migrant census is hoping to address that.
Refugee camps, sleeping rough
In February this year, Colombia opened its first government shelter for those arriving from Venezuela. The Temporary Service Center, on the outskirts of Cúcuta, is run by the Colombian Red Cross and provides food and lodging for 120 travelers for up to 48 hours.
Colombian officials traveled to Turkey last year in order to study long-term refugee camps, but the approach is not favored here.
“This [is] a center of attention for people who are en route, who rest there while they get transport,” Pepe Ruiz, mayor of the district, told Bloomberg on opening the shelter. “I don’t agree that they should stick around there, or this will become a big mess.”
It is a view shared by Christian Visnes, Colombia director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has long operated in both Colombia and Venezuela to assist people displaced by Colombia’s conflict.
“Temporary camps often become permanent,” he said. “And they become attractive to armed groups in Colombia, who will see there are vulnerable people who can be exploited or recruited.” Visnes also warned against the “pull factor” camps may create, encouraging more Venezuelans to arrive in a city that is already overburdened.
But on the streets of Cúcuta, where Venezuelans are struggling to survive without work or shelter, debates about camps seem academic only. Efforts to create viable alternatives are limited.
Daniel Fernández, 23, left Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in December and upon arrival in Cúcuta began camping with hundreds of others in a public soccer field. The makeshift shelter, dubbed “Hotel Caracas,” was broken up by police in January.
He, like thousands of his compatriots, now sleeps rough.
“Back in Hotel Caracas we had community, we looked out for each other. I didn’t worry about having my stuff stolen,” he said. “If they opened up another one — legal or not — that’s where I would be.”