“Open Arms”: Colombia Faces the Venezuelan Migrant Crisis
The line of people on the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, which connects the Venezuelan city of San Antonio del Táchira and the Colombian town of La Parada, only recedes when the bridge closes at night. Not far from the bridge, merchants mill about, trying to sell water bottles or luggage help to the recent arrivals. After crossing the bridge, the arrivals set off in search of basic necessities that seem to no longer exist back home.
More often than not, both the merchants and the arrivals are Venezuelans, pushed to Colombia in search of food and medicine by the dire economic situation on the other side.
As many as 30,000 Venezuelans cross the Simón Bolívar International Bridge every day into La Parada and move on to the border city of Cúcuta, whose population is 750,000. Most of the Venezuelans come only temporarily, but for months, as many as 3,000 a day have been making the trip with no intention of going back.
Venezuelans can cross into Colombia without a passport, instead presenting a Venezuelan identification card, which is easier to obtain. But thousands cannot meet that requirement and use secluded trails to enter Colombia undocumented, risking encounters with criminal groups.
Driven by desperation, the Venezuelan migrants are fleeing what has become the greatest humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Recognizing the duress, Colombia has opened its doors, but with the flow of people unlikely to abate, concerns for the future are mounting. In pursuing a better life for their families, the migrants have strained Colombia’s hospitals and schools.
Last June, the Colombian government announced that over one million Venezuelans had entered the country over the previous 15 months. The government has since estimated that another million will arrive by the end of 2019.
“The community is not ready for another mass of equal size,” Father Francesco Bortignon, who runs a temporary migrant shelter on behalf of the Scalabrini missionaries in Cúcuta, told The Politic in a phone interview.
Despite the generosity that Colombia and neighboring countries have shown, there are escalating calls for regional actors and the larger international community to do more to support the migrants.
Underlying the Venezuelan exodus is the country’s economic malaise. According to Dany Bahar, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution, the current downturn’s origins go back to the presidency of Hugo Chávez, which began in 1999.
“His government did the opposite of everything you learn in Econ 101,” Bahar said in a phone interview with The Politic. “It was an experiment in how to destroy an economy.”
Bahar highlighted the Chávez administration’s use of the largest oil boom in Venezuela’s history to dramatically increase spending and finance a vast array of social programs. While these programs decreased poverty and boosted Chávez’s popularity, the government overspent and severely indebted itself. Its failure to save any of the state-owned oil company’s earnings or invest in other sectors set Venezuela up for failure.
Global oil prices crashed in 2014, during current Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s second year in office, and Venezuela soon became unable to service its debt. This made it impossible for the country to continue importing food, medicine, or other basic necessities like toilet paper and diapers.
While many countries export oil, Venezuela was the only one to spiral into such a severe crisis after the global price decline. “It is not fair to say that the crisis is due to the fall in the price of oil,” Bahar argued.
The crisis also sparked the rampant hyperinflation and rising poverty rates that triggered the mass migration. The International Monetary Fund projected that inflation in Venezuela would exceed one million percent by the end of 2018, leaving Venezuela’s currency, the bolívar, essentially worthless. Now, the IMF predicts the inflation rate will hit ten million percent by the end of this year.
“The poverty rate is among the highest in Latin America, with 87 percent of households living under poverty,” Bahar said. “Three-quarters of the Venezuelan population has lost up to 20 pounds of weight involuntarily,” due to food shortages.
Amidst this economic carnage, Maduro has focused on centralizing power. In March 2017, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice dissolved the democratically-elected National Assembly, stripping the main source of opposition to Maduro of its legislative powers. In the months that followed, Maduro’s government violently suppressed protests and began the process of withdrawing from the Organization of American States (OAS), a continental organization promoting regional cooperation and democracy, signaling his refusal to heed international criticism.
Demonstrations beginning in April 2017 were subjected to the attacks of the Bolivarian National Police, the Bolivarian National Guard, and pro-government gangs. Throughout the following summer, anyone who chose to join the protests risked being maimed, killed, or arrested: by September protests had become far less frequent. Between April and August 2017, 165 Venezuelans were killed and around 5,000 were arrested at anti-government demonstrations. Over the last year and a half, the violence has subsided, but inflation has skyrocketed, Maduro’s authoritarian government has retained its power, and living conditions have deteriorated further. A new wave of protests, met with violent repression, began when National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president in January 2019. Maduro remains president, but several countries, including the U.S. and Colombia, no longer recognize him.
“We are experiencing oppression. The Chavistas have control and remind us every day: ‘We are in charge,’” said Javier Escalona, a former mechanic interviewed by Colombian newspaper La Semana. After his employer shut down its operations in Venezuela, Escalona began making routine trips across the border in search of money and supplies.
“You are killing us. We cannot do anything, but there is one who can. Think about it, Maduro, before it’s too late. I want Maduro to listen to me: how many times have you gone to bed without eating?” cried María Helena Guzmán, a migrant interviewed by Colombian broadcaster RCN near the Simón Bolívar International Bridge last September.
“The only measure this government has to relieve internal pressure is to make people leave and transfer the problem to all the other countries of the region, which practically makes it one of the most immoral governments in history,” OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro told The Politic. “Almost no dictatorship on the continent has had such a detachment from the social problems of its country, as bad as they were, and there have been horrible dictatorships on our continent.”
With no government response to chronic food and medicine shortages, Venezuela has become virtually unlivable for the majority of its citizens. For many, the decision to leave has become a choice between life and death—according to the United Nations, over three million Venezuelans have elected to leave since 2015.
Since last April, Father Bortignon’s migrant shelter in Cúcuta, the Centro de Migraciones, has been at or above capacity. The Centro was designed to hold 110 guests, but Bortignon has regularly been housing an average of 120 to 130 migrants—almost all of them Venezuelans—placing mattresses in the Centro’s hallways, its classrooms, and even its chapel to accommodate as many people as possible. Most migrants stay for only a few weeks at a time. In total, thousands have stayed at the Centro.
“We always try to get a few more people off of the street, because we would always end up with another 50 or 100 [migrants] on the street,” said Bortignon. “We try to neither throw them out nor bother the neighbors.”
The Centro de Migraciones was established 40 years ago, at a time when many Colombians were migrating to Venezuela due to guerrilla violence in their own country. It provided Colombians in Cúcuta with a place to stay before crossing into Venezuela. Between 1960 and the turn of the century, millions of Colombians arrived in Venezuela.
Personal ties between the two countries remain strong. Bortignon explained how many Venezuelans are able to turn to Colombian relatives or friends as an alternative to staying at the Centro or sleeping on the streets.
Katy Watson, the BBC’s South America correspondent, told The Politic, “I’ve met people who are half Colombian and half Venezuelan, or people who are Colombian but now more Venezuelan. They’re people who’ve got a connection and a shared history in both countries.”
Besides housing, the nutritional, medicinal, and educational needs of the migrants arriving in Cúcuta present huge challenges. The Centro provides meals for hundreds of migrants on a daily basis at two community kitchens in the city and at a food stand closer to the Simón Bolívar International Bridge. But considering the malnutrition Venezuelans have suffered, the influx into Cúcuta has placed extreme pressure on the city.
The Colombian government has also granted the migrants full access to both Cúcuta’s hospitals and public schools. Urgent health needs left unaddressed in Venezuela have resulted in long wait lines at hospitals. Overcrowded classrooms abound in schools. The Centro provides pre-kindergarten to high school education, serving around 4,000 migrant children, as well as mental health services for migrants.
There seems to be a genuine commitment to aiding the migrants from the highest levels of the Colombian government. Colombian President Iván Duque announced last November that the country devotes half a percent of its GDP to provide migrants access to a wide variety of social services.
Many private citizens are also doing all they can to help the Venezuelans. One woman Watson met, who owns a cafe in Cúcuta, gives migrants water and a place to sleep at night. The migrants, many of them penniless, leave her notes expressing their gratitude.
Responding to the migrants’ needs, Bortignon has moved to expand the Centro de Migraciones. Within the next few months, the Centro will open a medical clinic and new housing and dining facilities that will allow it to feed another 400 people and shelter another 200.
But the organization’s ability to offer aid depends on outside support and, as a result, remains fragile. The Centro’s existing aid programs and expansions have been possible only because of support from the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Cúcuta’s municipal government. Local volunteers are essential to the Centro’s daily operations, as its staff consists only of three priests, two psychologists, two social workers, and a handful of permanent employees in the kitchen and security. Should any of the Centro’s sources of support fail to keep pace with the constant flow of migrants, efforts to provide humanitarian aid will suffer.
Very few of the Venezuelans who arrive in Cúcuta stay there. Job opportunities are scarce in the area, and many migrants are headed elsewhere. While more than one million Venezuelans entered Colombia in 2018, hundreds of thousands moved on to other countries, especially Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile. Some left for other cities in Colombia, particularly Bogotá, the capital.
Last November, the first migrant tent city in Colombia’s interior formed in Bogotá. Bortignon plans to open a second shelter in the capital due to the increasing number of migrants there.
Duque has expressed his commitment to what he calls an “open arms” policy, including legal entry and access to social services for migrants with standard Venezuelan identification cards.
Colombia’s neighbors have not followed suit. In August, both Peru and Ecuador required that Venezuelans present passports upon entry, despite the difficulty of obtaining a passport in Venezuela.
According to Bahar, this growing heterogeneity of policy toward Venezuelan migrants across the region, which makes it harder for them to settle in countries like Peru and Ecuador, could be prevented if the migrants were officially recognized as refugees. The United Nations has not applied its definition of refugee status, which focuses on racial, social, and political persecution, to Venezuelan migrants.
But there is an alternative. “Latin America is the only region in the world that has expanded this definition to something much wider,” Bahar said, referencing the 1984 Cartagena Declaration negotiated by ten Latin American countries and later endorsed by the OAS.
“The Declaration expands the definition and includes those who flee their country because of massive human rights violations or disruptions of public order,” Bahar explained. “Venezuelans are fleeing Venezuela for a very clear reason: the country is going through the worst humanitarian crisis that the hemisphere has ever seen.”
If the migrants were recognized as refugees, most countries in the region would be obliged to ease entry requirements under their treaty commitments.
In another worrisome development, there have been news reports of nascent xenophobic, anti-Venezuelan sentiments in Colombia and beyond. With huge numbers of migrants arriving in the country, concerns about disease and crime that new arrivals might bring have entered the public discourse.
In January 2017, then-Colombian Vice President Germán Vargas used a derogatory term for Venezuelans when he said “for nothing in the world, this is not for the venecos” at an opening event for new public housing units near the border. The incident sparked a media uproar and even drew condemnation from Maduro himself.
In the buildup to the October 2018 mayoral election in Lima, Peru’s capital, candidate Ricardo Belmont repeatedly insinuated in his speeches that the Venezuelans would steal jobs from locals and hog social services. Belmont fought back against allegations of xenophobia, arguing that he was merely “defending the Peruvian.” He ultimately won just 3.8 percent of the vote, but his rhetoric made a lasting impression.
Xenophobia has manifested itself in violent assaults and even mob attacks. In Bogotá, a rumor spread in late October that Venezuelan migrants living in the slums were kidnapping children, leading an angry crowd to pelt migrants’ homes with rocks. Police eventually intervened, but not before a Venezuelan migrant who had been in the country for three months was badly beaten. He died in a Bogotá hospital.
Following several attacks on migrant tent cities in Brazil, the Brazilian government deployed the army to the border—not to deter to future migration, but to protect those who had already arrived.
Bortignon blames sensationalist news coverage of crimes committed by migrants for the rising xenophobic tide. He believes that people should focus on their common humanity with the migrants. “A human is a human, and errors or barbarities happen everywhere,” he said.
Increasingly, the migrants who arrive in Cúcuta cannot afford to buy transportation out of the city. Instead, Bortignon attests that as many as 300 migrants walk out of Cúcuta daily. They embark on journeys of several thousand kilometers, to Bogotá and elsewhere, in search of better lives for their families.
Watson, who has reported from Cúcuta, has witnessed their desperation firsthand. “Everyone’s got a terrible story,” she said.
Often, parents leave their children behind in Venezuela, hoping to establish themselves abroad before returning to repeat the risky journey with their little ones. One distraught mother Watson met could hardly speak to her because she had left her eight-month old baby behind.
Another mother was eight months pregnant and traveling with her husband and her toddler. They had left without their two oldest children. The woman gave birth in Peru, but her baby passed away. The medical bills she incurred trying to save the child represented a huge financial strain for her family, delaying her reunion with her oldest children.
Sometimes entire families leave Venezuela together and travel with a few other families, seeking safety in numbers. Many migrants face long and uncertain journeys, further complicated by the daily risk of both petty and organized crime.
The migrants bring very little with them, and Watson has seen mothers sell their hair to wig-makers, hoping to make enough money to pay for the medicines their children badly need. And although the bolívar has been rendered useless as currency, the migrants have found new uses for it: stands selling handcrafts and decorations made of bolívars abound in Cúcuta.
“Not even dogs live like we do. The struggle and dishonor of leaving your land to avoid dying of hunger is hard,” a Venezuelan migrant named Juan González told La Opinión, a Cúcuta-based newspaper.
González spent five weeks working at a shelter in La Parada before he decided to leave for fear of being deported, he told La Opinión—even though Colombia has not been deporting Venezuelans. When the 50-year old González was interviewed, he had spent the last two days walking with a group of 15 and carrying all of his belongings in a bag on his back.
Desperate for jobs, migrants, however overqualified, tend to take the first opportunity that presents itself. One man Watson met selling water bottles in Lima used to be an engineer with his own office in Venezuela. Now, he makes more in a day than he used to make in a month before departing.
“I need to find a job again and be able to help my family,” said Alejandro Rodriguez, another migrant interviewed by La Opinión. “[My family was] sad to see me go, but the blessing my mother gave me when I left will take care of me, God knows that I go ahead for them.”
Rodriguez, just 19 years old at the time, had worked on a coffee plantation in Colombia the year before, returning to Venezuela periodically to bring money and food to his family. Now, he had crossed the border to provide for them again.
“People are moving because they’re desperate and because they don’t have any other option,” Watson said.
There is no sign that the stream of people leaving Venezuela will slow anytime soon. Colombia’s foreign minister has projected that as many as four million Venezuelan migrants will live in Colombia by 2021, costing the government nine billion dollars of social services.
Before leaving office in August, Juan Manuel Santos, Duque’s predecessor, granted nearly half a million undocumented Venezuelans permission to stay and work in the country. Bahar described the Colombian government as making the best out of a complicated situation and pursuing the policies necessary to reap the economic benefits of the ongoing migration.
“There is a vast economic literature that shows that immigrants are extremely beneficial to the economies of the countries that receive them, as long as they are allowed to integrate into the economy, receive work permits, and start their own businesses,” Bahar said. “I only have good things to say about the Colombian government.”
But Bahar still worries about the international aid available to the countries receiving Venezuelan migrants. He made a comparison to the Syrian refugee crisis, which was of similar magnitude. Since 2012, donors have given 33 billion dollars in support of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, only 150 million dollars have gone toward the Venezuelan migrants’ cause.
“This aid is very generous, but it is not enough,” Bahar explained. “In order for Colombia and the region to continue receiving Venezuelan migrants, they will need more help from the international community.”
Father Bortignon’s experience confirms this assessment—and he believes the state of Cúcuta’s hospitals does too.
“They would need an infinite amount of state money to keep providing the medical treatments that migrants urgently need,” he said. “We are quite creative at devising practical solutions, but there is a limit to what we can do.”