Venezuela border standoff strains humanitarian response in Cúcuta

Venezuelan migrants and refugees wait in line for breakfast at the Divina Providencia shelter in La Parada in Villa del Roario, Colombia, as the border between the two countries remain closed. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

CÚCUTA, Colombia — The border closure between Colombia and Venezuela is straining humanitarian response efforts as organizations on the Colombian side work to meet the needs of migrants and refugees who can no longer move freely between the two countries.

The border has remained closed since the Feb. 23 effort by the opposition government of Juan Guaidó to move desperately needed humanitarian aid supplies into the country. That assistance, stockpiled by the U.S. Agency of International Development in Colombia, sits in a warehouse near one of three official crossings at bridges outside Cúcuta that remain blockaded.

“For the last year and a half, what we are seeing is the people who are coming are the poorest of the poor in Venezuela.”

— Maria Paula Martinez, director, Save the Children Colombia

Between the bridges, young men wait in groups, advertising to any slowing vehicle or passerby their services to help people cross the “trochas,” or informal river paths which people must now use to move across the border.

Patricia Guerrero, who arrived in Colombia from La Victoria, Venezuela, said crossing between the two countries using the trochas is very dangerous, particularly with her children, because the trochas are manned by armed groups that charge for passage.

“It’s much more difficult,” to care for her family now that the border is closed, Guerrero, 35, said. Before, Venezuelans who crossed the border to work — known as “pendulares” — could earn money on the Colombian side, she said, and then return to Venezuela where rent is cheaper. But now crossing the border costs money both ways.

A woman and two children cross under the closed Simon Bolivar Bridge, heading toward a trocha, or illegal crossing. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

This leaves an even more vulnerable population stranded at La Parada, the area around the Simon Bolivar Bridge where many NGOs have concentrated their humanitarian response at the Colombian border. The migration flow is only expected to increase amid a political stalemate between Guaidó and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“After Feb. 23, on the 24th and 25th, you saw the trochas become very active,” said Maritza Lucumi, of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “The bridge had become a place where people find work as street vendors. Because of this, before the 23rd, if you came to the bridge you’d see many people selling everything ... And these people who stayed since they closed the bridge, they don’t have work.”

NRC has two protection spaces in La Parada designed for women and children to receive nutrition services, psychosocial support, and access to bathrooms — a basic service for which migrants and refugees can be charged elsewhere. Medical care is provided nearby by the Red Cross.

Since the opposition’s failed aid delivery on Feb. 23, the U.S. has delivered more humanitarian aid supplies from USAID via military aircraft, including medical supplies, hygiene kits, food kits, and water treatment units. This assistance, the latest of which was delivered last week by a delegation led by USAID Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick, is intended to be distributed inside Venezuela when that becomes possible, but a Venezuelan army still loyal to Maduro has complied with his order to refuse its entry.

An estimated 1 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees have arrived in Colombia so far, and another 1 million are expected to cross the border just this year. While some people do not intend to stay near Cúcuta and instead move on to join friends or family throughout the country and region, others have nowhere to go.

The population fleeing skyrocketing inflation and the lack of basic food and medicine in Venezuela has become a particularly vulnerable one in recent years, said Maria Paula Martinez, director at Save the Children Colombia, which has concentrated its relief efforts for Venezuelans in departments of La Guajira and Arauca.

“For the last year and a half, what we are seeing is the people who are coming are the poorest of the poor in Venezuela,” Martinez said.

A short walk from the closed Simon Bolivar Bridge and the now-active trochas to La Parada, a center run by the Catholic Church and supported by the UN Refugee Agency and USAID distributes a breakfast of oatmeal drink, bread, and jerky sticks to migrants and refugees who wait their turn to eat in waves. At lunchtime, there is hot food, and the center serves around 8,000 meals per day. They feed between 4,000-4,500 people, around 1,200 of whom are children.

It is difficult to know each day how many people will show up at the center run mostly by volunteers, staff at the Divina Providencia shelter said. The Monday after the failed Feb. 23 aid delivery, the usual amount of people arrived to eat, use the bathrooms, and receive medical services, which are also provided at the facility. But since then, a higher number of hungry people are arriving to eat there each day, they said.

Guerrero explained that although not being able to move freely across the closed border with Venezuela makes life even more difficult, it is still better to be on the Colombian side.

“Inside the country is where the situation is worse,” Guerrero said. “There is absolutely nothing.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She 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.