As Venezuela sinks into chaos, more and more migrants are streaming into Colombia, which is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis. The influx has stretched the country’s economic resources to the limit and sparked a wave of xenophobia. But Colombia intends to keep its borders open.
By Sinikka Tarvainen, dpa
HAVANA TIMES – At a bustling bus terminal in the Colombian capital, about 15 people are waiting outside an office attending to Venezuelan migrants.
Their faces heavy with fatigue, their clothes dirty and wrinkled, they only exchange an occasional word or two.
When the Catholic Foundation of Attention to the Migrant (FAMIG) opens its doors at 8 am, the migrants stream in quietly and take seats in the hope of being given lodgings at the organization’s nearby hostel.
One woman, pale in her black jacket, anxiously grabs the arm of a FAMIG employee and explains she has vaginal bleeding. “Where can I get a doctor?”
A young man turns to a journalist taking pictures. “Can you tell me how I can get to Ecuador?”
About 4.3 million people have left Venezuela, up from 695,000 in 2015, according to the UN. That makes Venezuelans one of the largest population groups displaced from their country in the world.
Venezuelans are fleeing one of the worst crises in the region’s modern history, with their country’s economy on the brink of collapse while President Nicolas Maduro cracks down on the US-backed opposition trying to oust him.
Colombia hosts the largest number of Venezuelans, more than 1.4 million. About 350,000 of them are in Bogota, making it their third destination in Colombia after Cucuta and Riohacha near the border, municipal migration official Carolina Fierro said.
Thousands of Venezuelans on average cross the Colombian border daily, many of them planning to travel on to neighbouring countries.
But while Panama, Chile, Peru and Ecuador have imposed visa requirements on Venezuelans to stem the influx, Colombia has pledged to maintain a policy of “openness.”
Venezuelans with passports can enter Colombia unhindered. Others cross illegally via dangerous routes in the wilderness, where they may cross raging rivers and face extortion attempts by armed groups.
Some migrants then walk for more than a week to Bogota, while others travel on trucks or by bus.
FAMIG is one of several organizations assisting them in the capital.
“Some of the Venezuelans get robbed on the way here and arrive with nothing at all,” FAMIG spokesman Juan Esteban Lopez says.
Jose Bejas says he reached the capital two weeks earlier. “We are a group of about 17 compatriots sleeping under bridges,” the 30-year-old says.
“We beg in bakeries and restaurants and sell candies on buses. Some people have been kind, but we have also been called ‘sons of bitches’
and told to ‘go away.'”
Before leaving his home city of Calabozo in northern Venezuela, factory and construction worker Bejas survived on odd jobs for four months.
As hyperinflation constantly pushed up prices, “I could barely afford a bag of rice.” He finally decided to emigrate in the hope that his wife and 11-year-old son could follow him.
The immigration wave is new in the recent history of Colombia, millions of whose own citizens fled armed conflict and poverty to other countries – including Venezuela – in recent decades.
Those memories have contributed to Colombia’s sense of solidarity with Venezuelan migrants, said Yukiko Iriyama, deputy representative of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Colombia.
Colombia still has nearly 8 million internally displaced people, and the World Bank classifies nearly 13 million of the 49-million population as poor.
Given Colombia’s own problems, the country has made an “extraordinary effort” in hosting Venezuelans, Iriyama said.
About 600,000 Venezuelans have been granted special residence permits giving them access to legal employment, health care and education since 2017. Nearly half of Colombia’s Venezuelans are now legal residents.
Colombia is also granting citizenship to 24,000 children born of Venezuelan parents on its soil.
Undocumented Venezuelans, however, can only access emergency health services and often have trouble finding places for their children in schools.
They may be exploited by employers who pay for instance waiters one-third of what they would pay a Colombian, Lopez said. Local media report on Venezuelan children being trafficked into forced begging and some women becoming prostitutes to survive.
As Venezuelans are seen as competing for jobs and resources and sometimes committing crimes, a rising wave of xenophobia is taking hold, said Rocio Castaneda from an anti-xenophobia campaign run by UNHCR.
“Pamphlets circulating in some cities have threatened organizations and employers helping Venezuelans,” Lopez said.
President Ivan Duque’s government, meanwhile, says the influx of migrants has stretched Colombia’s health and educational resources to a crisis point. The country has only received 30 per cent of the aid it is estimated to need for the purpose this year.
“There is a limit to [Colombia’s] capacity,” Iriyama warns.