By 4 p.m. on Saturday, the day Colombia reopened its border with Venezuela, at least 40,000 people had streamed into the border town of Cucuta. They came by foot across a visibly tired Simon Bolivar bridge, which droops slightly at its midpoint. Most came to buy food, medicine and household goods — the basic products they can’t find in Venezuela anymore; the majority then returned home.
Before last weekend, the border had been closed for a year, after a decision by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to seal the crossing and expel large numbers of Colombians living on the Venezuelan side — at least 22,000 left, many of them forcibly deported. Technically, Venezuela’s side of the border is still closed, but after discussions between the two countries’ governments last week, Colombia reopened to pedestrian traffic.
The subsequent influx of Venezuelans has provided an alarming preview of what many humanitarians organizations fear could happen next. Instead of going back home, the men, women, and whole families crossing over from Venezuela could stay in Colombia. If the economic situation continues to deteriorate, if political unrest turns violent, or if Venezuela decides to expel the still millions of Colombians who live there, massive migration would likely result.
“Initially this year, we were worried that we would see what happened last year,” with Colombians returning from Venezuela, said Yadmira Galeano, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council office in Cucuta. “But from this scenario we have moved on to the scenario of Venezuelans. We are seeing all the time more and more Venezuelans crossing the border.”
The Colombian foreign ministry official responsible for the border said a mass arrival of Venezuelans isn’t likely to happen. But his ministry and all other relevant government agencies have established contingency plans in case it does. So too have local and international aid groups working in Colombia. During a visit to the border in Colombia’s Norte de Santander department this month, Devex heard from half a dozen organizations that they are quietly making preparations; many believe an exodus scenario is now likely.
So far, these NGOs and local groups have been able to lay little physical groundwork — in part because the government is adamant that it will lead any crisis response. Any visible preparations could also undermine a tenuous relationship between Colombia and Venezuela that the government in Bogotá needs stable; Caracas is a guarantor of its ongoing peace talks with leftist guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Despite the hush, however, three separate humanitarian organizations independently told Devex that the government has informed them it is planning for as many as 1 million arrivals from Venezuela. Victor Bautista, director for development and border integration at the foreign ministry, declined to specify scenarios of possible arrivals in an interview, and did not reply to later requests to confirm the 1 million figure.
“Every agency was obligated to create an internal contingency plan in order to deal with larger situations” after the expulsion of Colombians from Venezuela last year, Bautista said. “We have to analyze situations that are possible, even if they aren’t likely.”
A potential crisis?
On the main streets of Cucuta, only locals can see the trouble brewing. Shops are open as usual and there are no visible migrants or refugees begging or squatting out of need. Exchange houses flash advertisements to swap bolivars for pesos. There are no more NGO workers or international development expats filling up hotel rooms or renting apartments.
But go to the environs of Cucuta — the invasions — residents see new people arriving from Venezuela every day. Newly built shacks pop up in the settlements, bringing men and women with the same slow border accents but different slang. “Many of them are youth,” says Francesco Bortignon, a Catholic priest who has worked in the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods for 37 years. “We have started to find them here in the neighborhoods … these are areas where their houses are made with metal sheets and 75 percent of the population depends on the informal economy.”
Outsiders have gotten a glimpse of the crisis only a few times, when the border opened temporarily to Venezuelan shoppers over the summer. The first time, some 500 civilians — many of them women — plowed down Colombian guards, running into Cucuta with cheers as they bought food and household goods. Tens of thousands more came during two official openings in July, carrying back bags of rice and toilet paper.
Three things could motivate Venezuelans to leave their homes permanently, humanitarian organizations here say: hunger, illness and insecurity. All those pressures are growing as the economy stagnates.
The Venezuelan government controls the distribution of all foods, medicines and household goods, which citizens are allowed to buy in quotas, based on their national identification numbers.
Most residents can buy groceries two times a week, but they often find little on the shelves; rice, flour, sugar, and toilet paper are among the basic goods now in short supply. Local producers have mostly been nationalized or expelled, and with nearly 500 percent inflation, Venezuela’s local currency can hardly afford imported goods. The devaluation of the Venezuelan bolívar has also obliterated family incomes; even full time government employees’ salaries are rarely sufficient to buy food. Medicine, distributed by the Ministry of Health, is also rationed and rarely in stock.
Already, those pressures have pushed some Venezuelans — estimates range from hundreds or several thousand — to leave permanently for Colombia. Human rights groups say mixed families that have at least one Colombian member are returning in larger numbers, though there is no official or even unofficial estimate of how many. Many Colombians in Venezuela fled as refugees at the height of their country’s armed conflict and lack official documents, so they haven’t been able to access official food lines. Even for those with papers, being a Colombian can prove problematic; guards can pick out foreigners based on their ID number and force them out of the queue.
Humanitarian organizations in Cucuta say they have also seen a rise in the number of patients coming from Venezuela to seek treatment for chronic illnesses such as cancer and HIV. And young Venezuelan men are increasingly sweeping shops and hammering in construction projects.
With the huge difference in currency valuations, they are willing to accept a lower salary than most Colombians. The government’s labor authorities have stepped up inspections by 300 percent to look for irregular migrants, according to Bautista of the foreign ministry.
One possibility is that this slow trickle will continue. With the border open to some foot traffic, Venezuelans could buy goods across the border and return; some remaining temporarily to look for work.
Any shock, however, could send those numbers upward. A growing proportion of the population in Venezuela has spent its savings and exhausted its safety net; a fall in the currency or long-term food shortages could leave little option but to flee.
The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has prepared three scenarios for a possible exodus from Venezuela to Colombia. The most conservative projects 5,000 to 12,000 arrivals — a number that could still constitute a crisis, said office head Diego Garcia. OCHA’s second and third scenarios — projecting between 20,000 to 40,000, and more than 40,000 arrivals — paint a more dire picture.
“We think that if it is even just 20,000 people, it would overwhelm Cucuta,” Garcia said.
The worst case scenario, which humanitarian workers only mention in a whisper, could be much graver: a total government collapse. If Venezuela becomes a failed state, it would likely send refugees streaming en masse.
Experience with influx
If and when a crisis happens, Colombia’s government would manage a response operation. The national risk management agency, Unidad Nacional para la Gestion del Riesgo de Desastres, would take the lead, working with the foreign ministry and other government entities.
“The first [response] is to use our own capacities to resolve what we can resolve,” said Bautista. “And in the case that we cannot, we will make the call” to international actors.
That’s roughly what happened in 2015, when at least 22,000 Colombians returned home in just a few weeks, most of them unwillingly. Venezuelan authorities packed Colombians onto buses, burned their houses, and chased them from their neighborhoods; many of those arriving had urgent medical needs.
Colombia declared a state of emergency, set up temporary shelters in schools, and opened up Bodegas to offer food. International agencies offered support, but at the government’s invitation. “For us, in the UN, we thought it was a very good response,” said Garcia. He said that both intergovernmental and interagency cooperation procedures have improved since then, based on 2015’s experience.
Other humanitarian actors are less optimistic that the Colombian government would be able to manage a larger or different crisis. For example, the arrivals last year were almost entirely Colombian citizens — a fact that enabled them to seek work legally, to access services such as health and education, and to register any difficulties with the justice system. Venezuelan arrivals, by contrast, are considered irregular migrants and cannot legally access services from any Colombian government agency except in health emergencies, for example.
“We are not ready,” one human rights lawyer told Devex, speaking anonymously to preserve a working relationship with government entities. From the lawyer’s experience in official discussions regarding the planning process, he said: “Those of us working in this area know that we are not ready. We need the various institutions to work as a network and make plans of actions … but for now it’s only meetings and more meetings.”
Here are the needs
For many locals here, there is already a crisis — and Venezuelans’ demands on their city are already too many to fill. “I don’t like it — I don’t like it at all,” a citizen interjected during an interview Devex held at a human rights organization’s office. “There are so many Venezuelans here taking the jobs.”
In a worse crisis, Venezuelans would arrive in Colombia with a wide range of humanitarian needs, said Galeano of NRC. “We are talking about people who don’t have a contact with Colombia, and probably not people from the border but rather those who are living further inside Venezuela. They are going to arrive without a means or place to live.”
Housing would be the most immediate concern. For now, many of the new arrivals from Venezuela are landing in informal settlements, known here as invasions, because they are built on illegally seized private land. With no public services and with poor quality materials, the neighborhoods are subject to the dominion of armed groups and gangs and frequent police raids, the human rights lawyer said.
New arrivals would also struggle to access healthcare under existing rules. Undocumented or irregular persons in Colombia have a right only to emergency care — though Bautista said that his government was discussing with Venezuela the possibility of jointly paid social funds that could allow citizens of one country to access some facilities in the other.
Nor would Venezuelan children be able to access schooling — a situation that has already left many new arrivals out of the classroom. Unless a member of the family is Colombian, Venezuelan children aren’t usually eligible for citizenship and hence are barred from public schooling.
All three of these are areas that Colombia could potentially ask international organizations and agencies to assist with since existing local service capacity is limited. Primary schools in Cucuta would struggle to accommodate large numbers of new students. The health services are so overstretched serving Colombian citizens that new demand could collapse the system, said Galeono.
International and local NGOs are starting to make plans now. U.N. agencies have a contingency plan separate from that of the government. A local consortium of organizations calling itself the Migrant Network has also met several times to hash out a unified response plan.
But humanitarian organizations haven’t been able to move much beyond talking, for now. Because the government has insisted that it is ready to handle a crisis response, many international NGOs say their hands are tied until they get an official green light to participate.
Status and protection
One of the biggest question marks hanging over any potential crisis and response is the status of Venezuelan arrivals. For now, those who come without a Colombian relative or a visa are treated as illegal economic migrants, and that would likely remain the case unless there was a significant deterioration across the border.
“If you look at the situation of Venezuelans in light of the criteria for being refugees, they wouldn’t meet the standard,” said Galeano. Few of the current arrivals can prove they are specifically targeted by the state or another group or are otherwise persecuted.
Legal status is one reason that, for now, the influx of Venezuelans into Colombia goes largely unnoticed for anyone who doesn’t live here. Aside from hearing accents on the street and seeing new arrivals in the outlying neighborhoods of Cucuta, few can say how many people have crossed and stayed. Colombia has processed only a handful of asylum cases from Venezuelans in the last year; unless they are from a mixed family, most migrants are not registering with authorities at all.
Invisible crises are that much more difficult to attend to. Few organizations — the Catholic Church, several religious missions, and a few local social groups — are currently helping the steady stream of newcomers. They must do so quietly, since most institutions are barred from helping undocumented persons. Such an ad hoc response has left gaps that may only grow in the coming months, regardless of the situation across the border.
Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.
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