As midday looms in the arid Colombian city of Maicao, dozens of Venezuelans gather under a large canopy for a free meal of chicken and pasta.
The hot temperatures of this desert-like region give them little reason to stay outside, and soon after eating most are back in their tents seeking shelter from the sweltering sun.
“When I was in Venezuela, I thought tents were only for going to the beach,” says Zaimil Vega, a Venezuelan migrant who arrived in Colombia on 2 March and is pregnant. “But now they’re saving us from sleeping on the streets.”
Last month, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and local authorities opened the first tent camp for Venezuelan migrants here in northern Colombia. It already houses 200 of the most vulnerable people — families with children, pregnant women, and the elderly — and can be expanded to accommodate more than 1,000.
Its construction comes as hyperinflation, medical shortages, food shortages, and now power outages force growing numbers of Venezuelans to leave their country in search of healthcare, work, or a better future for their families.
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Some 3.4 million people have left Venezuela over the past three years, according to the UN, and 1.2 million of those have settled in Colombia – a middle-income country trying to recover from five decades of internal armed conflict. The UN estimates that another 1.9 million people will have fled Venezuela by the end of the year.
A temporary stop
The UNHCR tent village in Maicao is deemed an “integrated assistance centre” by the UN. It differs from refugee camps that the agency has built in Africa and Asia because residents are only allowed to stay for a maximum of one month.
The goal is to provide shelter and food to the most vulnerable migrants and refugees, while partner organisations help legalise their status, find them housing, or relocate them to other areas of the country, explains Marco Rotunno, UNHCR’s communications officer in Maicao.
When a camp resident leaves, his or her space is given to someone else who has recently arrived from Venezuela.
This revolving door strategy has been developed in coordination with the Colombian government, which has long been wary of building camps in which migrants and refugees can stay for months and years. Authorities in Colombia have said those sorts of camps create a culture of dependency on government handouts and hinder newcomers’ integration into society.
The camp of white tents stamped with the UNHCR logos sits just 15 minutes’ drive from the Venezuelan border in Maicao, a hardscrabble town of dusty streets and market stalls selling contraband goods, where the poverty rate is twice Colombia’s average.
It’s one of several camps that Colombia plans to build in the following months in towns along its eastern border that are struggling to accommodate vulnerable Venezuelan migrants and refugees.
UNHCR’s tent village was built at the request of Maicao’s city government, which was unable to offer housing so Venezuelan migrants wouldn’t need to sleep on the streets.
A survey conducted in February by UNHCR found that 1,500 Venezuelans were sleeping on the street in the Maicao, a town of 140,000 people. The town’s population has grown by 15 percent over the past three years due to the influx of migrants.
“The local authorities asked us for help, because they were overwhelmed,” says Rotunno.
Time to make plans
In November, Colombia developed a strategy for integrating Venezuelan migrants, drawing up plans to build four camps in border areas this year.
The government said the camps will provide temporary housing to a total of 64,000 people in 2019, and cost approximately $5 million.
Brazil began to set up similar camps along its northern border with Venezuela last year, moving migrants into cities in the south of the country only after they had been granted permission to work and were guaranteed temporary accommodation in shelters run by churches and nonprofit groups.
At the UNHCR camp in Maicao, priority is being given to families with children, pregnant women, and elderly people who could develop serious health problems if they continue to live on the streets.
“In Venezuela I had a job, and a home with walls. But it’s no use staying there if you can’t afford food or basic things.”
Vega, 31, is three months pregnant and moved to the camp with her boyfriend, Manuel Canova.
The couple ran out of money on their second day in Maicao and slept on the streets for several nights before they were approached by social workers who helped them register at the UN camp.
“In Venezuela I had a job, and a home with walls,” says Vega. “But it’s no use staying there if you can’t afford food or basic things.”
Vega was managing a bakery back in Venezuela and making the national minimum wage of $6 a month. Her boyfriend helped make ends meet by selling groceries, but his business was failing due to the widespread food shortages.
The couple now share a tent with two friends from their home state of Anzoátegui and the friends’ nine-month-old daughter. To earn some money, they sell water and sweets in the streets, making $1 or $2 a day.
“In Venezuela you are always thinking how you will make it to the next day,” Canova says. “It’s hard here too, but we are hoping we can get a job and stabilise ourselves.”
The couple say they have applied for jobs in Maicao, but without success, as they still don’t have documentation that allows them to work in Colombia. They’ve been told they can stay in the camp for a month and are still uncertain what they’ll do next.
“Perhaps we’ll try our luck in a bigger city,” says Canova.
(TOP PHOTO: Volunteers move a tent at the new UN camp for Venezuelan migrants in Maicao, Colombia on 20 March 2019.)