When Jasmerlin decided to abandon her home to flee poverty and hunger in Venezuela, she knew that the life of a migrant with no money and two small daughters was not going to be easy. She knew she would have to work extremely hard, often on an empty stomach and for endless hours, but staying back was not an option. She and her daughters deserved better.
“The situation in Venezuela had become unbearable for more than 5 million people who fled their once-wealthy country. Scarcity and hyperinflation made even the most basic food items completely unaffordable for most of the population,” says Álvaro de Vicente, head of regional office for the EU´s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Access to the most basic services — health, water, electricity — turned into a tremendous daily challenge. Most Venezuelans decided to leave when they truly had no other choice if they wanted to survive in dignity. They often travelled under extremely precarious conditions, walking thousands of kilometers without proper clothing or food and constantly exposed to violence and human trafficking. Many have been attacked, extorted or robbed on their way.”
Jasmerlin was one of them. She led her family across South America and managed to reach Peru, where she settled down in 2017. She started working hard, selling coffee on the streets of the capital city Lima and managed to enrol her daughters in school and to rent a small apartment. Things seemed to be finally going the right way until the coronavirus outbreak started.
Peru declared a strict lockdown on 16 March 2020, shortly after the first case was reported. External borders were sealed, airports shut down and people were told to leave their homes only for essential and life-saving reasons. 33 million citizens understood the emergency and despite the harsh economic consequences they knew they would face, they largely abided by the rules and stayed home. For months.
Among them, there were more than 800,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees. They knew the lockdown was necessary to avoid greater consequences, but movement restrictions took a tremendous toll on them. A study conducted by EU partner Action Against Hunger estimates that more than 455,000 migrants and refugees live in overcrowded structures, houses and rooms, a situation which puts them at greater risk of contracting diseases and makes preventing the coronavirus a difficult challenge.
Many Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Peru rely on informal jobs to survive: they sell simple goods on the streets, wash car glasses at busy crossroads, collect trash or work in local restaurants and hotels. Staying home means no income. Many could not afford the rent and were forced to sleep on the streets. Families had to cut down on food, often eating just once a day, never enough and never well. They suddenly found themselves lost, jobless, hungry, and at the mercy of anxiety, a situation too similar to the one they had fled in Venezuela.
Jasmerlin lost her job and had to ask her landlord to postpone rent payments. She invested her few savings in buying the ingredients she needed to sell snacks to her neighbours, only to make ends meet. Hers is one of the thousand stories of how the consequences of the coronavirus destroyed the fragile stability that migrants and refugees managed to achieve. From being able to pay rent, eat well and have some leisure, Jasmerlin was again in a situation in which she had to struggle to guarantee a roof for her daughters. The results of years of hard work on the streets of Lima vanished into thin air in only three months.
Migrants and refugees living in Peru are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Among other actions, the EU is funding Action Against Hunger NGO in Peru to assist the most exposed to these hard times. Jasmerlin is one of 2,500 persons to have received psychological support and one of the 800 who received hygiene kits in support of coronavirus preventive measures. These kits have been put together following beneficiaries’ suggestions so that they could be better tailored to their needs.
With EU funding, Action Against Hunger also coordinates food distribution in a network of shelters where many Venezuelan migrants and refugees live. They ensure that the most at-risk individuals, especially elders, children under 5 years old and persons with disabilities receive daily meals. Personnel working in the shelters also receive equipment and specific training to prepare food for infants under 2 years old.
Marylin lives in one of these shelters, the Albergue Sin Fronteras. She fled Venezuela and reached Peru almost a year ago and is now pregnant. The pandemic left her with no job and no income. Thanks to the shelter, she now lives in a safe space where she has a support network and can receive humanitarian assistance. She receives food every day and can use the shelter’s kitchen to cook.
Despite having enforced a nationwide quarantine earlier than European states, the number of cases keeps rising in Peru. More than 28,000 people have died and over 600,000 have tested positive, making the Andean nation the 6th most affected country in the world with the highest rate of coronavirus deaths per capita.
In the Amazon region, the indigenous population has been hit particularly hard, especially the communities living in the most isolated areas with very limited access to basic healthcare, and where seven out of ten local medical workers have already been infected.
Latin America and the Caribbean has become the most affected region in the world with 7.2 million positive cases and more than 274,000 deaths, both figures largely considered to be under reported. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has warned that if the current trend persists, more than 438,000 people will have died of coronavirus by the beginning of October 2020.
“We at the EU’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations are supporting a response to the coronavirus addressed both at vulnerable Venezuelan migrants and refugees and at the communities hosting them. Our intervention includes the provision of primary health services and measures to prevent and control the pandemic, like the distribution of protection equipment, the rehabilitation of water and sanitation infrastructures in health and quarantine centres,” says De Vicente. “We also fund and oversee the distribution of hygiene kits, the support to risk information campaigns and the regular distribution of cash to the most vulnerable people affected by the lockdown measures.”
In the worrying coronavirus scenario developing in Latin America and the Caribbean, the European Union will continue providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to the millions of vulnerable citizens affected by the pandemic and its economic consequences.
Story by Daniele Pagani, Regional Information Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations
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