Venezuelans face mounting challenges as flow increases back to Colombia

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Venezuelans hold their belongings while conversing next to a Colombian highway. Photo by: STRINGER / REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Venezuelans have been crossing into Colombia at greater numbers in recent weeks as COVID-19 restrictions loosen, and NGOs are struggling to meet the expanding needs.

Marianne Menjivar, Colombia and Venezuela country director at the International Rescue Committee, said many of the Venezuelans coming into Colombia are members of vulnerable groups such as children under age 6, pregnant women, older people, and unaccompanied minors. More are also beginning the “caminante” — or walking — route through Colombia to other cities and countries rather than staying in crowded border areas.

“We’re seeing an uptick — significant uptick — in numbers crossing across ‘trochas,’ the illegal crossing points,” Menjivar said of the last two weeks. “We’ve ramped up our service provision. Our program has grown enormously since the beginning of COVID … because [of] the effect that COVID has had on migrant communities and host communities, too.”

Returning Venezuelans subjected to 'inhuman' treatment, report says

Venezuelans returning home amid COVID-19 are being discriminated against by the government of Nicolas Maduro, a new report from the Organization of American States found.

After Colombia officially closed its land border with Venezuela in March to control the spread of the coronavirus, it maintained some humanitarian checkpoints to allow Venezuelans to return to their home country. Many Venezuelans do not have regular status in Colombia and work informally in sectors badly damaged by lockdowns and quarantines. Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 100,000 Venezuelans have returned to their country.

As mobility regulations have begun loosening, however, Venezuelans are now making the trip back to Colombia — where they will find even less assistance available to them. NGOs were already struggling to meet the needs of the massive outflow of people, the majority of them being hosted in Colombia.

Due to the irregular nature of migration at the border, it is impossible to know exactly how many people are moving each way. But more than 5.1 million people have fled widespread economic and political collapse in Venezuela, with an estimated 1.6 million settling in neighboring Colombia.

The pandemic has forced a scaleback of migrant charities, such as shelters and food pantries, as crowds congregating in one place must be reduced to respect social distancing protocols.

Marten Mylius, Colombia country representative for CARE, said the organization has tried to fill this gap by operating outside Cúcuta — the border city in Colombia where many services for Venezuelans are concentrated — and along the walking route, many migrants and refugees take to reach other cities. Many informal shelters run by Colombian families that were taking people in overnight are no longer doing so.

“It’s a real emergency. I don’t know whether that’s really clear to everybody. The figures are picking up, and support infrastructure … has been closed down or much reduced in capacity,” Mylius said. “There’s a lot of people without any support, and there’s a real emergency on that front. We need urgently places from which we can operate to support that group with lifesaving assistance. … We need alternatives.”

Last week, Mylius visited Pamplona, a city on the caminante route. He called the conditions there “miserable,” with people forced to sleep on the street in the rain and going without basic items such as clothes and diapers for children. CARE is providing cash support to migrants and refugees, as well as focusing on protection needs and sexual and reproductive health.

There are a high number of pregnant and lactating women making the trek from Venezuela into Colombia, Mylius said, with reports of increased maternal mortality at the border. Basic prenatal care is essentially unavailable inside Venezuela, and many women are malnourished and at risk of pregnancy complications.

While the Colombian border with Venezuelan remains officially closed, it spans over 2,000 kilometers — 1,200 miles — and is impossible to secure entirely. Mylius said CARE is also concerned about migrants and refugees who may be entering the country through crossings in more remote areas, which are populated with armed groups amid ongoing, simmering insecurity. Recruitment for these groups has increased during the pandemic as livelihoods opportunities have been cut off, Mylius said.

“The funding, compared to the needs, just isn’t there.”

— Marianne Menjivar, Colombia and Venezuela country director, International Rescue Committee

Colombian authorities sent troops to the border to attempt to close illegal crossing points, but neither troops nor armed groups are likely to deter those who are unable to find food and medical care in Venezuela.

“With seven, eight months since lockdowns, people’s ability to overcome the restrictions that COVID means for livelihoods and their ability to access health services and make a living and put food on the table has just made them unable to carry on,” Menjivar said of Venezuelans in Colombia. “They need to be able to buy food and have a job to be able to pay their way.”

Despite remarkable dedication from the Colombian government to supporting migrants and refugees, recent research shows they have been impacted particularly hard by the pandemic. Helen Dempster of the Center for Global Development, which conducted a case study in partnership with Refugees International, said 64% of Venezuelans were working in sectors highly impacted by the pandemic, compared with 47% of Colombians.

“Because Venezuelans can’t work in all sectors of the economy for various different reasons … it means they’re crowded into particular parts of the economy that may be more informal or temporary or rely more on day wages,” Dempster said.

She argued that despite increasing xenophobia from Colombians who have suffered during COVID-19, regularizing Venezuelans remains in the interest of the Colombian government. Migrant workers can help expand the tax base and start businesses if they are not relegated only to an informal economy that has been crushed by pandemic restrictions, Dempster said.

It is unclear whether the approaching holiday season will see the usual number of Venezuelans travel back to their country for Christmas and how accessible such journeys may be this year. Meanwhile, NGOs continue operating in a state of uncertainty over how long restrictions on their activities may be in place. And resources remain a challenge, with the 2020 Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela only seeing $496.9 million raised, or just 35.3% of the $1.41 billion requested.

“The funding, compared to the needs, just isn’t there,” Menjivar said.

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.