Venezuelans Face a Long Road Home from Colombia

By Sinikka Tarvainen (dpa)

There are numerous encampments of destitute Venezuelans in the Colombian capital of Bogota. Photo: Adriana Bernal RCN radio

HAVANA TIMES – Tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who have been left destitute by Colombia’s Covid-19 outbreak want to go home. But Venezuela is not welcoming them back, and even if they manage to enter their crisis-hit country, they risk facing a new infection peak on the other side of the border.

In a makeshift camp on the side of a busy highway in the coronavirus-hit Colombian capital, hundreds of Venezuelan migrants are dreaming about going home.

“I just want to close my eyes and wake up in my big house in Venezuela, where I have my mother, father and siblings,” says Jose Herrera, 34.

Men, women and children stand in tight groups among tents and plastic shacks in the camp, which is opposite a bus terminal in northern Bogota. Many do not wear face masks, despite the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

Colombian police keep guard to prevent too many migrants from leaving the camp amid concern over possible infections.

The approximately 400 people in the camp are hoping that the city of Bogota will send buses to take them to the border, but even if they reached it, the return to Venezuela would be fraught with obstacles.

Before Covid-19 hit the region, Colombia was the favourite destination of Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic meltdown, food and medicine shortages and political unrest.

About 5 million have left the country, according to the UN. Colombia hosts around 1.8 million Venezuelans, the vast majority of whom came in recent years.

“I was doing well working in warehouses, construction sites and a telephone shop,” says Herrera, who arrived from Valencia in northern Venezuela three years ago.

But the pandemic shattered the lives of many of the Venezuelans. More than half are in Colombia illegally and the majority scraped a living in the informal sector.

Herrera lost his job and supported his wife and four daughters by begging. He was evicted from his house and now pins his hopes on buses provided by Colombian municipalities that have been taking Venezuelans to the border.

Others have used private bus services and many have walked, said Jozef Merkx, the representative of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Colombia.

More than 76,000 Venezuelans have already crossed the border, and over 24,000 still want to do so, according to Juan Francisco Espinosa, head of Colombia’s migration authority.

But Venezuela has now limited entries through the main border posts in Cucuta and Arauca to just 1,200 people a week.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government argues that Venezuela has far fewer Covid-19 infections than Colombia – 3,150 compared to 57,046 – and that it needs to reduce the influx of returnees to keep the pandemic under control.

The restrictions have left nearly 1,000 Venezuelans stuck in border localities, where many of them sleep outside.

The Colombian authorities are now trying to limit travel to the border, Merkx told dpa. Espinosa said it could take more than six months for all the potential returnees to cross over.

Large groups such as the one in the Bogota camp can meanwhile also be found in Cali, Bucaramanga and elsewhere, according to the UNHCR representative.

Nearly 70 organizations are trying to help them survive and protect their health. But there is nevertheless concern that concentrations of migrants could become hotbeds of infection and even crime, said Juan Esteban Lopez from the Catholic aid organization FAMIG.

Those migrants who do cross into Venezuela are far from safe from Covid-19, as the real number of infections is widely believed to be higher than the government says, due to limited testing and a lack of transparency.

Venezuela’s Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences said in May that the country could have at least 63 per cent more infections than official statistics show.

An upcoming peak is expected to exceed the capacity of the crumbling health system and lead to a rapid spread of the virus.

Incoming Venezuelans are placed for two weeks in overcrowded quarantine centres with poor sanitary conditions, according to Colombian television reports.

Herrera is well aware he would be returning to a crisis-hit country where neither his livelihood nor his health would be guaranteed.

“But it is better than sleeping on the street in Colombia,” he says.