(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Nearby Curaçao no safe haven for fleeing Venezuelans

    The international airport on Curaçao resembles that of any other Caribbean island beach destination: minivans wait for tourists headed to nearby resorts, tour operators hawk snorkelling and jet ski excursions, steady streams of sun-burnt visitors are dropped off for return flights home.


    In recent times, however, a different kind of visitor has been seen in greater numbers and not made to feel so welcome. Each week Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers walk through the same arrival halls while others are discretely deported through the adjacent departure gates.


    The Dutch island’s geographic proximity – it lies 65 kilometres north of the Venezuelan coast – and cultural and economic ties to its mainland neighbour make Curaçao a logical destination for those fleeing Venezuela’s economic meltdown and autocratic rule.


    Yet the island is anything but a safe haven.


    Some 16,000 Venezuelans – equal to 10 percent of Curaçao’s overall population – have been documented as arriving on the island since 2015, joining 10,000 others who are legal residents here. Some arrive on small boats, risking their lives on the rough open ocean; most fly in as tourists and simply don’t take their return flights.

    According to recent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, life for many of the Venezuelans who make it to Curaçao has become a cat-and-mouse game, as the eagerness of the authorities to detain and deport them is an open secret.

    “Curaçao is one of the places where we have documented the worst abuses suffered by Venezuelans fleeing the devastating human rights and humanitarian crisis in their country,” wrote José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, in a 15 October letter to Dutch and Curaçao ministers.

    These findings were backed up by interviews IRIN conducted with several Venezuelans – some still trying to make a fresh start on the island, others already deported back to Venezuela. They spoke of fear, abuse, and exploitation.


    Beaten and laughed at


    “They exploit the Venezuelans a lot,” said Marcela Perez*, who joined her brother in Curaçao in October 2016 when she flew to the island to try to earn enough money to support her two children back home.

    Like many undocumented Venezuelans, Perez ended up working in the informal economy, with three others in a restaurant kitchen. When the owners refused to pay her, she decided she had had enough and booked a flight back to Venezuela in July.


    “Have a good flight,” the restaurant owners texted her when she wrote them a message about the $2,000 they still owed her. Three days before her flight she decided to visit the restaurant once more to claim her withheld salary. She told IRIN how she was slapped in the face, beaten, and locked in the restaurant while the owners called the police to report her.


    “The police didn’t do anything when I told them what they did to me,” Perez said, describing how the officers simply laughed at her and placed her in a detention centre before taking her to the airport, where she was deported as an undocumented immigrant even though she had a plane ticket and was planning to leave anyway.


    Compounding the pain of being abused by her employers, disgraced at the hands of officials, and then deported back to the place she had tried to escape, Perez returned home penniless. Like many Venezuelans here, she spent all her savings on the flight to Curaçao.


    Legal obligation


    Unlike larger South American states, which between them have taken in some 1.5 million Venezuelans since 2015, most small island nations in the Caribbean have refused to accept any at all. Many, like Curaçao, have not signed or ratified international agreements such as the 1951 Refugee Convention or the regional 1984 Cartagena Declaration.


    As an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, however, Curaçao is bound by Dutch and European legislation that forbid deportations to countries with noted human rights risks – of which Venezuela is one.


    “A significant number of Venezuelans fleeing the country likely qualify for protection from forced return under a variety of international standards, including in some cases under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),” notes Vivanco’s letter. “Extremely high rates of violent crime and hyperinflation are also key factors in many people’s decision to leave the country.”


    In July 2017 Curaçao stated it was taking over asylum processing from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. However, human rights groups say it is still to grant asylum to a single person, and several deported Venezuelans told IRIN that asylum claims are rarely processed, even while sweeps to detain and deport asylum seekers are common.


    Last week, the European Parliament accepted a motion calling on all member states faced with the influx of Venezuelans, including the Netherlands, “to provide them with access to basic services and grant them temporary protected status and special residence rights”.


    Abuses and forced deportations


    In September this year, Amnesty International rang the alarm about the forced deportations in Curaçao, saying they were usually preceded by routine or automatic detention.


    “Immigration detention violates several human rights, including the right to liberty,” Carolina Jimenez, deputy research director for the Americas at Amnesty, told IRIN, noting that several other Caribbean nations practice forced detentions, including Trinidad & Tobago.


    “We were treated as any Curaçao criminal,” Deisy Rivera*, a 30-year-old Venezuelan who was detained for 11 days before being deported, told IRIN.


    In its recent report detailing alleged human rights abuses by the Curaçao authorities, Amnesty cited former Venezuelan detainees saying basic goods such as clean clothes and toiletries were withheld until they had purchased plane tickets home.


    The report also contained allegations from several women who accused guards of forcing them to perform sexual acts in exchange for soap and sanitary pads.


    A silhouette of a man facing away in a dark alley.
    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    “If a policeman wants to catch me, he must run faster than me.” Martín Figueroa in Curaçao.

    Hustling to stay


    UNHCR estimates that about 90,000 Venezuelans have arrived in the southern Caribbean since the exodus began in 2015.


    In 2017, 1,203 Venezuelans were deported from Curaçao. By August, that figure was more than 500 for 2018. In most cases they are forced to pay for their own flights back.


    Thousands remain and are still hopeful they can obtain legal residence and begin new lives.


    Martin Figueroa*, 29, has spent more than a year illegally on Curaçao, working various informal construction jobs, often not receiving his promised wages.


    “If a policeman wants to catch me, he must run faster than me,” laughed the fast-running Venezuelan who hopes to get a work permit through a local football team.


    Figueroa fled Venezuela with his girlfriend, Angélica Moralez*. As undocumented Venezuelans, their world is often restricted to their apartment and the street below. “If we go to the corner and the police see us we need to rush back for fear they will take us,” Figueroa explained.


    Moralez said she thought she was being recruited for a restaurant job in Curaçao and that her flight over from Caracas was paid for by the people promising her work. But as is the case for many young Venezuelan women who are lured away criminally under false pretences, her passport was taken by her supposed employers on arrival and she had to work in the sex trade to pay off her debt.


    “Being Venezuelan here is liking living outside of the law,” said Moralez. Fear of being rounded up by the island authorities constantly occupies her mind, but going back to the crisis in her home country is not an option she is willing to consider.


    (*Names were changed due to the risks faced by the interviewees)


    (TOP PHOTO: A young Curaçaoan looks across the harbour at a cruise ship. Curaç​aoans have their own problems of rising unemployment and historical discrimination. CREDIT: Bram Ebus/IRIN)


    Authorities on the Dutch Caribbean island accused of raids and deportations
    Nearby Curaçao no safe haven for fleeing Venezuelans
  • In the Caribbean, local aid helps tackle a surge in Venezuelan asylum seekers

    Until a week ago, Enrique Ceballos was a High Court judge in eastern Venezuela. But now he’s waiting on a plastic chair outside an NGO-run registration centre for asylum seekers in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.


    Ceballos said he fled his home in Venezuela with his wife, son, and daughter because he faced threats due to his work as a judge.


    “I needed to rule in favour of the government,” he said. “It’s really difficult to work like that.”


    More than 1.6 million Venezuelans like Ceballos have left the country since 2015, leaving behind a crumbling economy and a political crisis that has triggered shortages in food and healthcare. While hundreds of thousands have headed over the border to Colombia, others have spread throughout the region – including Caribbean island nations like Trinidad and Tobago, which lies only 15 kilometres away from Venezuela’s eastern edge.


    One of the only agencies working with the growing number of asylum seekers here is Living Water Community, a local Catholic non-governmental organisation that helps newcomers like Ceballos apply for asylum and integrate.


    Rights groups say the work of local civil society and church groups is critical in the Caribbean, where the soaring numbers have taken small island governments by surprise. Authorities often don’t have the resources, infrastructure, or policies in place to receive asylum seekers, and some governments have deported newcomers or erected roadblocks for those seeking protection.

    ☰ Read more: Why the aid sector wants to go local


    The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover 33 emergencies around the world. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.


    This includes the Venezuelan migration crisis: the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says it needs $46.1 million to help countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean cope with the influx. The appeal is roughly half funded. The UN’s migration arm, IOM, is also asking for $32.3 million to carry out its work, including in six Caribbean countries.


    What is local aid?


    The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Why local aid?


    The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they have local knowledge and skills, they can often access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.


    Who are local aid workers?


    Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society organisations, faith groups, indigenous peoples, municipal governments, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees, host communities, and everyday volunteers.



    In 2013, only 43 people from throughout the world applied for asylum in Trinidad and Tobago. As of July, there were more than 4,800 applicants from Venezuela alone, and an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans in the country overall, including legal and undocumented migrants, according to the UN.


    Rochelle Nakhid, who coordinates Living Water Community’s work with asylum seekers, says the first Venezuelans began arriving in late 2015. Last year, the numbers spiked; today, more than 600 Venezuelans arrive each month, she estimates.


    “Quite frankly, we can’t keep up resource-wise with the demand and needs,” Nakhid says.


    Local groups one of the few relief efforts for asylum seekers


    Living Water Community was founded in 1975 by members of the Catholic Church in Port of Spain. Today, its 180 employees are active on social issues locally and in other parts of the Caribbean. In 2016, the group created its Ministry for Refugees to take on the growing number of asylum cases in Trinidad and Tobago.


    With the Venezuelan exodus spreading throughout the region, local NGOs and civil society organisations are “incredibly important”, says Carolina Jimenez, deputy research director for the Americas at Amnesty International.


    “In general terms, it is safe to say that most Caribbean islands are underprepared for large numbers of asylum applicants,” Jimenez said.


    Trinidad and Tobago only established a refugee office in 2016, while legislation that would define rights and help integrate refugees is still pending. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, opened an office in the country in 2016 with one international staff member. It relied on Living Water Community to facilitate asylum registration, and to identify and refer people who may need protection. UNHCR has since expanded its staff and opened an asylum registration centre on 17 August.*


    ☰ Read more: Venezuelans in the Caribbean


    The Venezuelan exodus is considered sensitive in many Caribbean countries. Some governments have close ties with the Venezuelan government, which has rejected humanitarian aid and downplayed the severity of its economic crisis.


    Human Rights Watch says most Caribbean nations lack legislation to regulate the asylum process.


    There are more than 100,000 Venezuelans in countries around the Caribbean. This includes:


    Trinidad and Tobago, now home to an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans.


    Curaçao, where authorities are effectively refusing to process asylum claims for an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 Venezuelans, according to Amnesty International.


    Aruba, to where an estimated 20,000 Venezuelans have fled. The government here allows registered asylum seekers to work.


    Guyana, where the government lacks clear refugee policies but, according to Human Rights Watch, allows some 15,000 Venezuelans to have access to healthcare and three-month stay permits


    The Dominican Republic, which is now home to at least 25,800 Venezuelans. The country has laws regulating the asylum process, but rights groups say authorities have made it difficult for newcomers to apply.


    Trinidad and Tobago has signed on to key international conventions that protect the rights of refugees. But, in practice, authorities have often been less than welcoming.


    In April, the government deported 82 Venezuelans, including registered asylum seekers and people who intended to apply for refugee status, according to UNHCR. Human Rights Watch says local authorities continue to detain people with asylum seeker certificates.


    Prime Minister Keith Rowley lashed out at UN statements expressing concern after the deportations, telling local media that a small country of 1.3 million people “cannot and will not allow UN spokespersons to convert us into a refugee camp.”


    In July the government said it was working to implement new policies to help refugees and asylum seekers, which could include training for immigration officers.


    The Ministry of National Security, which oversees refugee issues in the country, did not respond to IRIN’s interview requests.


    The tipping point


    Most Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago arrive without significant savings and turn to under-the-table jobs, as they don’t have the legal right to work.


    Living Water Community provides asylum seekers and their children with cash grants and a place to stay. It tries to place asylum seekers with host families, but many newcomers are spread out over the twin islands in search of shelter.


    “We’re trying to identify buildings that we can either rehabilitate or just put furniture in or whatever, so that we can provide accommodation at a lower cost for the Venezuelans,” explains Living Water Community’s Nakhid.


    The group also advocates for education opportunities for children – government regulations effectively prohibit even recognised refugees from accessing public schools.


    A worrying new trend is a rise in unaccompanied children coming to Trinidad and Tobago. Living Water Community recorded its first case this year; there are now at least 13, says Veronica Jeffers, a protection officer with the organisation.


    This includes José Riviera, a 17-year-old from Caracas who arrived here with his family but was abandoned on the island.


    The teenager dribbles a football on a field outside the capital where Living Water Community set up a football school for undocumented children. “I hope to play one day for a professional team in Trinidad,” Riviera says.


    There are enough participants for two small teams, both trained by a Trinidadian coach.


    The Venezuelan youngsters quickly pick up English, Trinidad and Tobago’s official language. One of the football players is Americo Rodriguez, a 16-year-old from Caracas who has already spent four years on the island.


    Rodriguez and his parents are recognised as asylum seekers and have managed to integrate.


    A beach scene with a vendor on a bike
    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    On Maracas beach in Port of Spain, local informal beach vendors have prevented Venezuelan migrants from selling products. More than 4,800 Venezuelans are seeking asylum in Trinidad and Tobago, but they don’t have the legal right to work.

    On paper, their UNHCR certificates protect them against deportation, but it does not allow them to work. Rodriguez’s father is able to pay rent because he works informal jobs. Rodriguez himself teaches taekwondo to local kids each Saturday.


    Seeing the government reaction to the growing number of asylum seekers, the Catholic Church announced in May that newcomers would be given food and shelter at any church on the twin islands. Jason Gordon, archbishop for Port of Spain and a member of Living Water Community, sees two options: either the refugees end up in informal economies and persecuted as outsiders on the island, or they are welcomed and helped to integrate.


    He acknowledges that the small island nation will one day reach a tipping point, where it can’t afford to host new asylum seekers – but this peak has not yet been reached, he says. For now, he wants every parish on the island to be a place where asylum seekers can feel welcome, adding: “We’re like a mangrove, absorbing and distributing the water.”


    (* Pseudonyms were used for Venezuelan asylum seekers, who asked not to be identified in this story.)

    (Updated with new information)


    Governments have been caught off-guard as the regional migration crisis expands
    In the Caribbean, local aid helps tackle a surge in Venezuelan asylum seekers
  • As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes

    It’s about the distance of a drive from Berlin to Athens. The 2,219-kilometre long Colombian-Venezuelan border has long been porous and difficult to manage. There are seven official crossings, but nearly 300 clandestine trails, called trochas, are fought over for control by various illegal armed groups, used by smugglers and crossed daily by thousands of migrants, often at great risk.

    Analysts and officials say traffic on those trails has increased in the weeks since Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced stricter enforcement at official border crossings, an effort to stem migration from Venezuela.

    Colombia doesn’t recognise the Venezuelan migrants as refugees, but the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, stated on Monday that a significant number should be considered as such. It is also urging receiving states to allow the Venezuelans access to their territory and to adopt more pragmatic protective measures.

    A game of numbers

    “The problem of the Venezuelan migrants has been growing. It’s a complex problem; a problem that we are not used to,” Santos said during a visit to the border town of Cúcuta on 8 February, the day he announced the new border regulations.

    Since then, only holders of valid visas or migratory cards (which only permit short-term visits and are no longer issued) may enter Colombia. Willington Muñoz, coordinator of a refugee centre run by the Catholic Church in Cúcuta, says the new measures can be interpreted as a “diplomatic closure of the border”, because many Venezuelans lack the documents needed to obtain passports and officials may request unaffordable bribes or lack the materials to process them.  


    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    An official crossing in Cucuta

    Colombia’s migration office boasted that the influx at official Venezuelan crossings dropped by 30 percent in the two weeks following the new regulations. But such statistics can be a game of numbers. Venezuelans desperate to escape economic and political crisis are not easily stopped.

    Officials in the Colombian border department Norte de Santander, of which Cúcuta is the capital, have logged 78 trochas. They say they have recently seen more smugglers and undocumented migrants using those trails. More than 550,000 documented Venezuelans currently reside in Colombia, but many more have entered without documentation, straining border cities like Cúcuta.

    ‘They will kill you’

    Smugglers, too, rely on the trochas. “If you make a mistake and take the wrong trocha, they will kill you,” a 23-year-old from Caracas, who requested that his name not be used out of fear for his safety, says of the various groups that ply the trails.

    He arrived in Colombia last November, and says he was recruited as a smuggler while sleeping in Cúcuta’s bus station. He says he stopped smuggling contraband goods a few weeks ago, fearing for his life. He earned well, relying on the trochas for his work,  “but life is worth more”, he explains.

    A four-kilometre walk across the border via a trocha is a costly venture, he says. Paramilitaries and guerrillas who have long fought in Colombia’s half-century civil conflict crowd the routes. ELN and EPL guerrillas are present, as are the Rastrojos and Urabeños – paramilitary groups that vie for control over the most lucrative trochas. All demand payment from people using the routes.

    A single trocha sometimes includes seven or more checkpoints controlled by different groups, including the Venezuelan National Guard. An increasing number of Venezuelan migrants, as well as the maleteros, the smugglers who use the trochas, are falling prey to extortion at the many checkpoints. The total cost of one-way passage averages at least $80-$100, paid out to different groups at different checkpoints, according to analysts and people who have used the routes. Higher fees are demanded for transporting goods. “If you do not pay they will kill you,” the former smuggler says.


    Policía Nacional de los colombianos
    Border control at the Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar bridge near Cúcuta

    The Colombian government does not ignore the trocha wars. “There will be more control and more security at borders,” Santos said, pledging greater security across all border regions when he announced the clampdown at official border crossings. Since early February,  Colombia has sent about 3,000 security personnel to border areas, and seven trochas have been closed. But as some shut down, new ones open.

    Fuelling an underground economy

    Trochas fuel the thriving underground economy in Cúcuta. The border city exists largely because of the difference in value between the Venezuelan and Colombian currencies. In the past, Venezuela was much more prosperous than Colombia, and Colombian products were sold across the border. Now, it’s the other way around. Everything from foodstuffs to Venezuela’s heavily subsidised fuel is transported via the trochas.

    On a tour of downtown Cúcuta, the former smuggler and a street vendor of sweets and snacks point out unregulated market stalls. They offer shampoos, cigarettes, flour, milk powder, and many other products, largely food, that are made in Venezuela but hard to buy there. Because Venezuela is riddled by hyperinflation, basic goods are often trafficked via the trochas to Colombia, where they fetch a much better price in stronger Colombian pesos.

    At one of the Cúcuta market stalls, a 49-year-old woman who is a dual Colombian-Venezuelan national sells contraband Venezuelan rum and household products. Once a week she walks over a trocha, she says, paying fees at seven or eight armed checkpoints. When she can, she prefers to buy from others smugglers and avoid the risk of the trochas.

    Another good widely available in Venezuela and smuggled to Colombia is arms. “A revolver costs about 1.3 million Colombian pesos ($470) in Colombia, and you can buy it for 400,000 pesos ($140) in Venezuela,” the former smuggler explains.

    The human toll

    Women – many of them minors – are also trafficked across the informal crossing routes and then prostituted in Cúcuta. Human trafficking routes have existed along the border since the 1980s, Wilfredo Cañizares Arévalo, director of Foundation Progresar in Cúcuta, explains. Most often, Colombian women were trafficked to Venezuela, where they were then sent to Aruba and Curacao as sex workers.

    The crisis in Venezuela has flipped things, Arévalo says: Venezuelan women and underage girls are now trafficked to Colombia. The recent tightening of border controls, he says, “resulted in old, informal routes to be opened again” for trafficking women and an increase in the trafficking of minors. Routes across the border, he notes, are in constant flux.

    Venezuelans without money or legal identity papers are easy prey for illegal armed groups looking for workers. “Recruiting has increased,” says a representative of Colombia’s Departmental Ombudsman for Human Rights. “Many underage Colombo-Venezuelans and Venezuelans [are sought].”

    Children 12 or 13 years old are often recruited to collect “intelligence” and transport fuel to Colombia, where it brings a much higher price than in Venezuela, the representative explains. “Venezuelan kids are given bicycles by the ELN. They cross the border with the bikes and the fuel. They know where the army, the ELN, the Rastrojos, Urabeños and the police are. They use the rural zones around Cúcuta.” Shootouts between groups occur in populated rural hamlets in broad daylight, and minors have been killed, the official adds.

    From new solutions, new problems

    The border and migration crises, including the trochas wars, have become one of the most politicised topics as Colombia and Venezuela prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections this spring. So far, though, no solution to either is in sight.

    Ivan Briscoe, the Latin America and Caribbean programme director of the independent peacebuilding organisation International Crisis Group, explains that the migrant crisis will continue as long as the fundamental drivers of migration remain or increase.

    Referring to the crackdown on documentation at official border points, he notes: “The perverse effect of increased controls when there is a huge demand of migration is that it increases the prices which can be charged to migrants because of their sheer desire to cross.” And, he adds, the measures may also boost activity in illicit markets. Rather than ease the crisis, he says, Colombia’s efforts to curb the influx of economic migrants have brought new problems.

    (TOP PHOTO: A member of the Policía Nacional of Colombia stands guard in Cúcuta)



    For more:

    Half a million and counting: Venezuelan exodus puts new strains on Colombian border town

    Venezuela needs sane governance, not aid

    Colombia’s Venezuela problem

    Stricter entry regulations have decreased official crossings by 30 percent, but the real number entering is now harder to gauge
    As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes
  • Half a million and counting: Venezuelan exodus puts new strains on Colombian border town

    The sun is burning at the Colombian border town of Cúcuta. Red Cross workers attend to people with dehydration and fatigue as hundreds of Venezuelans line up to have their passports stamped, covering their heads with clothing and cardboard to fashion what shade they can.


    These are just the latest arrivals. By January, at least 550,000 Venezuelans were officially residing in Colombia, with nearly half arriving last year alone, according to Colombian officials. Most are fleeing  their country’s economic meltdown – one of the world’s largest migrations unassociated with conflict. The pace picked up in the last six months of 2017, with a 62 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans living in Colombia in the second half of that year compared to the first. And they keep coming.


    Cúcuta’s city centre is full of migrants sleeping on the streets. Most of them have no money. Beggars are everywhere. Underage girls prostitute themselves alongside the roads. Armed gangs, ELN guerrillas, and paramilitaries are said to be widely recruiting desperate Venezuelan youngsters.


    Colombia isn’t used to this. For more than half a century, the human tide went the other way – more than five million Colombians migrated to Venezuela to escape conflict among government forces, paramilitaries, crime syndicates, and guerrilla groups. Now, the tide has turned.


    Jozef Merkx, country representative for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, worries that Colombia’s hospitality is already at breaking point. He doesn’t know what will happen if similar numbers of Venezuelans arrive over the next six months – a distinct possibility, especially as tensions may rise around Venezuela’s 20 May presidential elections.


    Colombian officials say that legal migration from Venezuela declined in February, after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a valid passport or migratory card — which permits short-term visits to the border area and which Colombia has temporarily stopped issuing — are needed to cross the border, tightening what had been an often lax review of documents. Entries at seven migration checkpoints fell from 48,000 to 35,000 per day, officials say, although those numbers include people who buy goods and return to Venezuela as well as those who transit through Colombia. But analysts and observers say more migrants are now crossing at informal border points, or trochas, often controlled by illegal armed groups.

    “Colombia is not prepared for what is happening now with Venezuela, and they have never gone through this,” says Merkx. “Colombia is a refugee-producing country. Now, for the first time, it’s a receiving country, and they are not ready.”


    The Colombian government has been drawing up emergency plans to cope with the influx of migrants, but concrete measures are still hard to identify. NGOs and charities as well as the UN and a few other international organizations provide assistance. The pace of arrivals is so great, though, that most Venezuelans fend largely for themselves, as a visit to Cúcuta in late February reveals.


    A constant influx


    On the Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar, the short bridge that is the main crossing point for Venezuelans into Colombia, the influx is continuous. Families dragging suitcases and pushing grandmothers in wheelchairs have an exhausted but relieved look on their faces as they cross.


    José Luis has tears in his eyes. “I leave my wife and three children behind”, says the 44-year-old carpenter, who declines to give his surname. Like many, he hopes that the last of his savings can take him somewhere he can find a job, turn his fortunes around, and start sending money back home.


    Others are in worse shape.

    “We haven’t eaten for 24 hours so we can save some money”, says a 27-year-old former teacher who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation on family members back home. She left her five-year old behind with her father. Waiting in the queue at the Colombian migration office, she has around $10 to her name.


    Hustling to get by


    Colombia is a difficult place for Venezuelans to try their luck. Internal conflict has left more than seven million Colombians as internally displaced persons, without jobs or houses. That conflict includes decades of fighting among various left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary organizations and the Colombian National Army. Venezuelans must compete with the locally displaced on the formal and informal labour market. In Cúcuta, the 2017 unemployment rate was already 16 percent.


    Many Venezuelans arrive solo con la ropa puesta — with only the clothes on their backs. People do what they can to get by.


    “I buy hair, I buy hair!” a young Venezuelan man in a baseball cap, Julio César Romero, screams.


    Women’s hair for wigs can fetch anywhere between seven and 28 dollars, he explains, but the recent border restrictions have brought a decline in trade. “We used to have frequent clients”, says the 18-year-old. “We cut the hair of 20, 30 girls a day.”


    A woman looks away. She doesn’t want to answer questions. She just bought two large, black and recently cut ponytails.


    The money women earn for their hair might be just enough for a bus ticket to a nearby destination. Bringing money from Venezuela is nearly useless, as the currency, the bolívar, has plummeted. The 2017 inflation rate in Venezuela is estimated to be more than 2,600 percent and is expected to rise above 8,000 percent this year.


    The hair trade isn’t the only recent entrepreneurial venture. Félix Martínez ran a tourist services company in Choroni, on the Caribbean Venezuelan coast, until last year. When tourists stopped visiting as a result of the crisis, the 34-year-old was unable to provide for his family. He arrived in Colombia five months ago.


    “I’m selling tasty orange juice, from Venezuelan oranges and with a lot of vitamin C”, he announces. “Most people love it!” If Martínez had the money to buy supplies, he would also like to sell piña coladas. He is not much of a complainer, though: He is sending money to his three children, wife, and father back in Venezuela.


    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    Felix Martínez, a former tourism worker, arrived in Colombia five months ago and now earns $35 a week selling orange juice near Cúcuta

    He earns about $35 a week and sends around $10 to his family. Martínez would like to find other opportunities, maybe in Ecuador or Peru. If Venezuela changes, he hopes to return. “To go back right now, I would go back as a defeated person”, he says. “It will be the same, and that is not what we want.”

    “Open-air hotels”


    The shelter run by the Catholic Church is completely full, and a second one managed by the local Red Cross and the Colombian foreign ministry is available only to Venezuelans with valid passports — which many recent arrivals lack. Venezuelans say access to new passports is difficult, with officials often asking for bribes or citing a shortage of materials to produce the documents.


    Finding shelter has become a cat-and-mouse game among police officers, criminals, and migrants. When migrants began occupying sports fields near the central bus station, gangs saw an opportunity to charge fees for the use of the space. The makeshift camp, nicknamed “Hotel Caracas”, was evacuated by the police, who deported about 130 people. Most of the migrants moved to other “open-air hotels.” But wherever they settle in large numbers, the police usually arrive sooner or later to evict them, displacing them somewhere else.


    Several Venezuelans interviewed for this article, while stressing their appreciation for help offered by Colombian citizens, also complained about hostile encounters with local people who fear for their jobs and worry about increased crime.


    A new UNHCR campaign, “Somos Panas” – “We are friends” in Venezuelan slang — aims to counter fears of growing xenophobia.


    A large refugee camp would not be a sustainable solution and can only be considered as a “last resort”, says Merkx of the UNHCR. Refugee camps are intended as temporary solutions, he explains, but often turn into settlements while long-term solutions for the residents remain unaddressed. He also worries that camps may trigger a rise in migration.


    Still, he emphasizes that solutions are urgently needed. “The border should stay open, one way or another, for the persons that flee from Venezuela”, he says.

    A surgeon, now sleeping on the street


    Every day around lunchtime, nuns from the Diocesan Food Bank of Cúcuta hand out food to people living on the streets. Venezuelans fill the queues. Among them is Oswaldo López, a surgeon from Caracas who is in his late 40s.


    “I studied 14 years for my career”, he says, waiting for a fruit juice and a small portion of rice and beans. Eventually, López’s income was not enough to provide for his family. Now, he sleeps rough on the streets of Cúcuta. The money he took with him, $35, was stolen at the border.


    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    "We wash ourselves in the river because the water in Cúcuta is too expensive," says one of the influx of Venezuelan migrants who now call Cúcuta home

    In the same queue stands Jhonny Castro from Barquisimeto, the capital of Venezuela’s Lara state. He studied business administration, is father to a six-year-old, and says he watched his grandmother die from a lack of medication and his 23-year-old nephew succumb to tuberculosis, a disease easily treated in Colombia. He receives his meal and walks to the Pamplonita River in the centre of the city with a few other migrants he has befriended.


    As Castro sits on a stone at the riverbank, his friends enter the dirty water to wash the clothes they are wearing. “We wash ourselves in the river because the water in Cúcuta is too expensive”, says one, Yorman Alvarado, a 40-year-old father of three who worked in the Venezuelan military. He now does odd jobs as a welder.


    As he eats, Castro explains that because he is undocumented he cannot get a formal job.  Instead, he looks for garbage to recycle, earning 20 cents a kilo for plastic and 10 cents for cardboard. A kilo of aluminium soda cans, though, brings 77 cents. On a good day, he can earn $1.50.


    Nearby, three young cousins from Venezuela’s third largest city, Valencia, have done well today. Over two days, they’ve gathered 20 kilos of cardboard, 15 kilos of scrap metal, and two of aluminium. This has bought enough food to last a few days. Firewood can be found easily, they say. The only problem: they have no pan to cook the food in.




    Find more IRIN coverage of Venezuela

    Venezuela needs sane governance, not aid

    Colombia’s Venezuela problem

    Trash economics: surviving Venezuela’s downfall

    Venezuelan voices: The real-life stories beyond the protests


    The town of Cúcuta offers few jobs, little shelter and much crime, but for Venezuelan migrants it’s better than home
    Half a million and counting: Venezuelan exodus puts new strains on Colombian border town

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