Venezuelans on the move — An evolving humanitarian crisis

Negar Tayyar
Mar 6 · 11 min read

Reflecting on a learning journey to the Venezuelan-Colombian border in February 2019

© Albuquerque Journal

‘The Global Whole Being Fund — Caring for Humanity on the Move’ (GWBF), which I direct, has continued to fill gaps within the refugee support system in selected locations across the globe. Human flow continues to increase globally. At the time of our inception, the migration route from the Middle East to Europe was the largest movement of people crossing borders in search for a sanctuary. Three years later, we are seeing two more significant humanitarian crises affecting Rohingyas and Venezuelans. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), over 727,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State and crossed the border into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. At the same time, Venezuela has seen the biggest population decrease in its history.

This edition of our newsletter covers our recent learning journey to San José de Cúcuta (short Cúcuta), the capital of Norte de Santander department in Colombia, which borders Venezuela.

© EPA published in Daily Mail (here) The picture shows Simon Bolivar bridge, the main entry point for people on the move crossing the border from Venezuela to Colombia. The numbers differ, but according to UNHCR, of the tens of thousands of people who cross the border daily, 5,000 intend to stay or continue their journey further south.

The context of an evolving humanitarian crisis

The Venezuelan humanitarian crisis is the fastest-escalating displacement of people in Latin American history. According to the UN, more than 3 million Venezuelans are displaced; 2.74 million of these are in Latin America. Other sources mention more than 5 million people since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis. With the growing hyperinflation in Venezuela, the UN estimates around 5.3 million Venezuelans will have fled the country by the end of 2019 (one in six Venezuelans). In addition, 300,000 Colombians residing in Venezuela have migrated out. Colombia, traditionally a refugee-sending country, which shares a border with Venezuela, now hosts the biggest portion of Venezuelans. The numbers vary depending on the source, but Colombia is currently hosting at least 1.1 million people. It is important to highlight that this number refers to the people who decide to stay in Colombia. The number of people traveling to neighboring countries through Colombia is much higher. Every day, tens of thousands of people cross the Venezuelan and Colombian border mostly on foot, of which 5,000 travel across Colombia with the intention of staying or moving to Peru (560,000), Ecuador (221,000), Argentina (130,000), Chile (over 288,000), and Brazil (96,000). Half of the Venezuelans on the move exit at Colombia’s southern border and enter Ecuador via the Rumichaca International Bridge in Nariño. Those traveling back and forth between both countries, including Venezuelan children who attend schools in Colombia, are referred to as ‘pendular migrants.’

The National Geographic followed the steps of some people on the move, including Moises Garcia (see picture on page 3). The young man is from Caracas, Venezuela, and has been in Cúcuta for more than a year, while his family is still back home. Moises is one of millions who left the country while their family members remained in Venezuela. Most Venezuelans on the move aim to earn a living and send money back to their families, who can barely afford to cover their basic needs (the average monthly income is $30). According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Venezuelans are suffering the most severe hyperinflation they have known since the beginning of the 20th century. Thus, 90 percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line. Another shocking fact underlining the humanitarian crisis is that currently newborn babies in Syria have better chances to survive than those in Venezuela. Maternal mortality increased 66 percent within a single year (2015 to 2016) and the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds in 2017 alone.

Cúcuta, the largest Colombian border city, has seen different shapes of human flow in the last decades. As the civil war reached its peak, thousands of Colombians crossed the border to Venezuela via Cúcuta. Around 340,000 Colombians left and the majority entered Venezuela. Fifty years of civil war have also taken a toll on the border region. The peace agreement, which has been all over the news across the globe, is still working itself out. Drug trafficking and high unemployment and poverty rates challenge the region significantly. To make matters more complicated, in addition to all the Venezuelans on the move, Colombia has 7.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) — the largest community worldwide (Syria has 6.2 million IDPs). According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), internally displaced Colombians in the country outnumber the Colombian diaspora.

© Greg Khan published in National Geographic (here)

In the last two years, Cúcuta, which has a population of 750,000, has welcomed thousands of Venezuelans seeking protection and access to humanitarian services. According to the UN, another 2.5 million people may leave Venezuela in 2019, the majority of whom will likely pass through Cúcuta. Most people used to enter Colombia via the Simon Bolivar Bridge just to the south of the center of Cúcuta (see picture on page 1) but are now entering the country at 25 illegal crossing points (in Spanish torchas) close to Cúcuta. The bridge remains the most vibrant border crossing and is still facilitating movement for thousands of people who are documented, but thousands of others need to find other less formal crossings. Everyone crossing the bridge needs to show a passport or some other form of authorized identification. Until recently, authorities required a valid Venezuelan passport, but due to the growing crisis, they now accept expired passports as well. Around the bridge, a hybrid formal and informal economy has developed with people selling all sorts of goods. One of the most heartbreaking moments was to see people selling freshly cut hair. Knowing how much Latinas care about their beautiful hair, it is hard to imagine how desperate a woman must be to sell it.

With several European countries and the United States reinforcing borders to prevent people from seeking a pathway to sanctuary, one has to applaud Colombia’s spirit of solidarity. The neighboring Latin American countries, which have absorbed most of the Venezuelans on the move, have responded with different protection frameworks (more here). Overall, the registration rate for newly arriving Venezuelans on the move has declined since early 2018. This creates a challenging situation for people, as they remain undocumented.

Reflections on a learning journey at the Venezuelan-Colombian border

If one wants to understand the context in Cúcuta, there is no better person to connect with than Father Francesco Bortignon, c.s., director of the local Scalabrini mission. He is not only in charge of nine masses on a single weekend day but also the respected elder serving people on the move and locals. After spending ten years in Venezuela, he moved to Cúcuta, where he has led the Scalabrinians’ work for the last twenty years. The Scalabrinians, a Catholic congregation founded in the 19th century with the primary aim to serve migrants, has been serving the community in Cúcuta for 40 years (more about the Scalabrinian’s evolution below). Understandably, Father Francesco and his team, which consists of nimble and whole-hearted women and men from the local community, are aware of the nuances of the local situation. When you encounter a Scalabrinian at one of their soup kitchens or schools, the Center for Migration, or the sewing workshop, you cannot help but be inspired by their spirit, positive energy, sense of humor, and ability to serve and create with very little resources.

© Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Image published in The Guardian (here)

It is hard to state how many soup kitchens, schools, and other supporting facilities are in place already, as Father Francesco and his team constantly try to create more space to meet the increasing need. As such, due to the urge of people on the move to be financially independent and able to send money to their families in Venezuela, Father Francesco and his team are giving seed capital to entrepreneurial Venezuelans with business ideas. Currently, the most successful entrepreneurs happen to be female, although the team is not just focusing on women. We visited two social enterprises run by fierce and creative women. One woman is buying large amounts of a variety of spices and selling them in small batches in and outside of Cúcuta. Her business now generates USD$4,000 per month (once again: the average monthly salary in Venezuela is $30). She is not only providing a living for her family in Cúcuta, but also for her family in Venezuela and her five employees (locals and Venezuelans). Another woman we met is hiring women (Colombians and Venezuelans) to help her to create hand-made candles for cakes. There seems to be a good market for this product in the region. Her business generates about $1,000 per month. Once the women are ready to pay back the seed capital, the Scalabrinians ask them to reinvest it into the operations and use it to grow their businesses. With a little bit more support, the Scalabrinian’s seed capital fund has the potential to evolve into an even more effective resource to support locals and people on the move.

Sanctuary for Venezuelans on the move

The Scalabrinian Center for Migration (in Spanish Scalabrini Centro de Migraciones) was established 40 years ago and formerly served Colombians on their way to seek refuge in Venezuela or those who were deported from their neighboring country. It is the only center that offers shelter for people on the move in Cúcuta. To ensure that the people’s needs are met in the most dignified and respectful manner, the Center has been going through several changes. It is remarkable to see that the team, though well-experienced, is not stuck in their modus operandi, but rather responds to the needs of the people and keeps adjusting and changing things as migration flows increase beyond what the Center was designed for.

When entering the Center one gets a sense that people feel comfortable and safe despite what they have gone through. Everyone can move around freely and space is filled with children playing and running around. With funding from UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Center offers a safe space and holistic services to 150 people at a time (around 5,000 people per year). Due to its temporary nature, caused by the lack of space and the Center being the only sanctuary, people can stay up to two weeks. Also, the Center can currently only accept those who are most vulnerable-families, single women, pregnant women, and people with disabilities. During our visit, we saw three people in wheelchairs and two visually impaired people. We could not even imagine what it must have been like to walk for up to two weeks being visually impaired or in a wheelchair. Most people crossing the border now are walking, some of them up to two weeks in a row (Caracas, the Venezuelan capitol, is 565 miles from Cúcuta). Most of these people will move on to Bogota or other cities.

With our strong holistic focus, we were inspired to learn that the Center has three psychologists. This allows the Scalabrinians to address the trauma people experience. People on the move usually have experienced multiple traumas in their country of origin, which gets exacerbated with traumatic incidents along their journey, and in their country of destination. The Center further covers basic health care and case management. Many people we encountered had severe wounds on their feet. The shoes most were wearing are not made to cover hundreds of miles on foot through rough terrain in intolerable heat for multiple days/weeks.

As the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate and the outbound flows increase across the Simon Bolivar Bridge, Father Francesco and his colleagues have anticipated that an expanded center and job training facility will be needed. The Scalabrinians have purchased an attractive piece of land within a short distance of the bridge, and are now actively planning to construct a new center on that land. This center will host up to 300 residents and accommodate several hundred people in training and educational programs.

The human face of the humanitarian crisis

We had the honor to speak to 20 Venezuelans of different ethnicities, ages, genders, etc. who are currently living in the Center. Everyone embraced us with a welcoming energy. Most people wanted to share their stories and we did our utmost to receive them with gratitude and respect. A young woman in her late twenties shared how much she misses her family back in Venezuela. She feels alone and anxious to get a job as soon as possible to send money home. The total remittances from diaspora Venezuelans are estimated to be about USD$1 billion and remain a lifeline for many people in the country. Three political asylum seekers shared their heartbreaking and courageous stories as well, which we cannot share due to their safety. Witnessing the dynamic in the group was heartwarming. These are all strangers who ended up in the same space, yet there is so much respect and support for one another. Whoever spoke and shared their story received a lot of support from the others. A community evolved in such a short time due to the holistic nature and spirit of the space.

© Greg Khan published in National Geographic (here) Left: Albeiro Romero, 16, has been living in Simón Bolívar Park in Cúcuta, Colombia, for three months.
Right: Oriana Brito, 20, from Caracas, Venezuela, has been sleeping on the streets in Cúcuta for more than six months. She said despite the hardships, she and her husband are better off than they were under President Maduro.

When asked about their main challenges, the people unanimously said: legal status, employment, and shelter. Many are hoping to depart from Cúcuta and get to Bogota where they have either family or more hope to get a job. A bus ticket usually costs USD$30 but can be tripled if they do not have a passport. The bus companies take advantage of their situation. Thus, some tackle the journey on foot — 125 miles over a 12,000-foot pass across the Andes Mountains. The majority do not have the right clothing or shoes to embark on such an intense journey.

In the Center, and at all of the other facilities we visited (three schools, two soup kitchens, and a sewing center), we witnessed how the Scalabrinians have been achieving their mission to serve people on the move as well as locals regardless of ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, gender, etc. As one of the partner organizations mentioned in a conversation: The team puts people over programs. The programs are inclusive and serve people on the move and locals, and are deeply holistic in nature, feeding the body, mind, and soul. We were also inspired by Father Francesco’s frugality. Somehow he and his team keep inventing solutions in a dire context. When asked about how to create more space to provide fresh and nutritious meals (funded by the World Food Program and delivered by the Scalabrinians), he responded: I will have to invent something. And he will.

We welcome your support and interest!

Please view this as an invitation to join us! If you wish to support the fund or the organizations highlighted here directly, we would be more than happy to share more and connect you with these rays of hope! If you know of further examples of inspiring programs and initiatives upholding the holistic wellbeing of ‘people on the move’, please do share these with us. We have embarked on an ongoing learning journey and welcome your ideas and support.

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