CÚCUTA — The Colombian government has instructed NGOs operating near the border with Venezuela to restrict their activities to half capacity, as the number of reported COVID-19 cases rise in the region, a measure that could worsen an already dire humanitarian situation.
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Over the weekend the first case of coronavirus was reported in Cúcuta, the Colombian city at the center of the response to Venezuelan asylum-seekers and migrants. With the number of reported cases in Venezuela also increasing, the Colombian government moved to crack down on movement along a border that sees an average of 30,000 crossings per day.
On Monday, the Colombian Department of Health announced that gatherings of more than 50 people will not be allowed, further restricting NGOs’ ability to help people who gather in humanitarian assistance areas. Under the new rules, foreigners are no longer permitted to enter the country.
NGOs say that cutting back services to half, or stopping their services, will leave an already vulnerable population without access to emergency medical care, food, and shelter. Before the border closed, organizations working in the area said the humanitarian need already outpaced their ability to meet it.
Diego Piñeros Socorro, national migration manager for the Colombian Red Cross, said balancing the organization’s operations with the Colombian government’s health regulations is “complex.”
“We will support the activities on the border, including strengthening our delivery processes, making sure we’re side-by-side with the most vulnerable,“ Piñeros said, noting that the Red Cross might differ with the government in “some elements of their analysis” of the situation.
There are also concerns illegal crossings could skyrocket as people trapped in Venezuela, which does not have a functioning health system, seek to flee the spread of COVID-19.
“We think we’re going to have a massive influx,” said Rigoberto Mesa, IOM’s emergency and stabilization program coordinator in Colombia.
People in the area had little time to prepare for the border closure, with the announcement coming on Friday night before the crossing between Colombia and Venezuela was closed at 5 a.m. on Saturday. Colombian police erected roadblocks several kilometers from the entrance to Simón Bolívar bridge and were not letting private vehicles through. The last of three checkpoints was about a kilometer from the bridge, which just the day before had been bustling with children crossing for school and elderly in search of medical services.
The border closure shut down a humanitarian area near passport control at the bridge, where organizations including the Colombian Red Cross, International Organization for Migration, UNHCR, UNICEF, and the Norwegian Refugee Council provide medical care, medicine, water, bathrooms, and a safe space for children. Venezuelans who cross into Colombia for just the day and then return, known as “pendulares” in Spanish, as well as those who remain on the Colombian side patronize the services.
Mesa said the NGOs working in the humanitarian area had not been informed that the border closure would also shut down their services, and they had been prepared to serve asylum-seekers and migrants on Saturday but were not permitted to do so.
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IOM and UNHCR, co-leaders of the Interagency Group on Mixed Migration Flows which is coordinating the response to Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, met Saturday morning with Colombian government officials, including local mayors and health department officials, to discuss what impact the measures would have on operations.
In response to a request for comment about the Colombian government’s decision, the president’s special adviser for border issues, Felipe Muñoz, indicated to Devex the government was motivated by reports of rising COVID-19 cases in Venezuela and the lack of credible information about exactly what is happening inside the country with respect to the outbreak. He said the measures will help protect public health of both Colombians and those who’ve migrated to the country.
“Clearly we know this will have consequences,” Muñoz said. “We know this will impact migrants but on the border there aren’t only migrants, there are Colombians. But we believe these measures have to be taken as prevention, looking at what is happening around the world.”
He said the Colombian government recognizes it is impossible to stop irregular crossings entirely, but it is making an effort to control the trochas, or irregular paths across the border controlled by armed groups and criminal gangs. Muñoz said closing official border entrances would avoid a concentration of people in one place, like the thousands that are usually present on Simón Bolívar bridge when it is open.
While official border crossings are closed, irregular movement on Saturday continued much as it had when the border was blocked for several months last year. Those running the trochas require payment for passage.
On Saturday morning, people could be seen passing baggage over a wall leading to a trocha. After heavy rains the night before, those who had just crossed were identifiable by their muddy shoes and suitcases as they walked through La Parada, the area near the bridge entrance.
The border closure follows a series of increasingly stringent measures by the Colombian government in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Before the border was closed Saturday, the government last week began requiring everyone entering Colombia to wear a face mask. Border agents checking identification documents were distributing hand sanitizer to those crossing the Simón Bolívar bridge.
Last week, the government banned gatherings of more than 500 people, causing the largest kitchen serving asylum-seekers and migrants to close temporarily. Monday’s announcement that no more than 50 people are allowed in one place will keep the kitchen closed beyond its anticipated Monday reopen date as organizers try to find a way to continue serving hungry Venezuelans.
Update, March 17, 2020: This article has been updated to add comments by Felipe Muñoz.