Gabriela Mota sells ice from her home to earn enough money to feed her two young children and pay the rent in Cúcuta, near the border with her native Venezuela. Since strict social distancing measures to fight COVID-19 were put in place mid-March, she can no longer sell food on the street or take on any sewing – the work that had been helping her get by.
“I’m afraid that if I go out to sell, I could bring the virus back home with me,” she says.
Months of strict quarantine measures throughout Colombia have led to empty streets and severe economic hardship for the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who make ends meet via informal work. Yet Gabriela is determined to stay and considers herself one of the lucky ones.
Gabriela and other Venezuelan women who continue to live in Colombia are up against not only a tough economy brought on by COVID-19 restrictions; they are also facing upticks in domestic violence and new risks of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Hard times have led some Venezuelans to leave, despite travel restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19. Over 76,000 Venezuelans have already returned to their home country, according to Colombia’s migration authorities. The government estimates that another 24,000 are waiting to return, from a total of 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants currently living in Colombia..
Colombia closed its border with Venezuela on 15 March and ordered most residents to stay indoors. The country also suspended international flights through August in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“I cannot go back because my children are studying here,” Gabriela says, speaking with TNH on the phone. “As long as God allows me to, I’ll stay here.”
Risks of gender-based violence
While recent data is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence shared with TNH by aid workers and NGO officials suggests increased needs for shelter, medical care, and counselling among Venezuelan women in Colombia, particularly since many aid facilities closed due to COVID-19.
Hundreds of women who arrived in Colombia before the COVID-19 outbreak have found themselves evicted and sleeping on the streets with their children during the pandemic – some waiting to return to Venezuela, others hoping to remain in Colombia.
The risks for a woman or a girl sleeping on the streets are different than those for a man, said Carolina Moreno, director of the Migration Studies Center at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, pointing to increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse. “The risk of being sexually abused is enormous, and that – added to the fear of reporting [abuse] – puts them in the worst scenario when it comes to lack of protection,” Moreno said.
For women who remain at home, violence at the hands of intimate partners while under lockdown appears to be on the rise – as in many other places around the globe. Calls to domestic violence hotlines across Colombia ballooned early in the lockdown, averaging 122 a day between 25 March and 11 April versus 53 a day in the same period of 2019. In Bogotá, home to an estimated 350,000 Venezuelans, Mayor Claudia López said in early April that one out of six calls to the capital’s Línea Púrpura helpline were from Venezuelan women.
The real number of incidents may well be higher. Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are often afraid to report sex crimes because they don’t have legal status in the country, Moreno said.
To ease Venezuelan returns, the Colombian government established “humanitarian corridors” at several checkpoints along the border – the main one being across the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that traverses the Táchira River to connect the Norte de Santander region with Venezuela. As of 16 June, Colombian migration authorities had registered more than 76,000 returnees since March through these “humanitarian corridors”. More than 500 Venezuelans had been returning every day.
However, the Venezuelan government announced on 6 June that it would restrict re-entry, following a COVID-19 outbreak on its side of the border, leaving over 1,000 Venezuelans stranded near Cúcuta.
Now, they only allow 300 per day, three days a week. According to Colombian authorities, at the current pace, it would take more than six months for all the waiting Venezuelans waiting to make it across the border.
Even without the re-entry restrictions, the trip home can be fraught.
Three of five women TNH spoke to by phone about their return had spent several nights sleeping in the streets with their children in Colombia, waiting for a bus to take them to Venezuela.
Rosa Elena Acevedo, executive president of the Uniandes Civil Association in Táchira, on the Venezuelan side of the river, conducted research with a dozen women returnees. They described being the target of insults by members of Venezuela’s National Guard, before herding them into government-run quarantine facilities in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It’s difficult to ascertain the conditions inside those facilities. Aid groups are not allowed to enter, and women inside are often afraid to speak openly over the phone. TNH contacted several women quarantined in Venezuelan shelters, but they said they were scared to speak out for fear of government reprisal.
“These are inscrutable spaces,” Acevedo said. “We don’t know what’s happening there.”
Acevedo added that the “psychosocial and physical deterioration is terrible” for many women making the journey back to Venezuela.
Together with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Uniandes has begun distributing 1,000 “dignity kits” – with soap, lotion, a towel and underwear – to Venezuelan women in quarantine.
Acevedo said several cases of sexual violence against women had been reported in the crowded migrant shelters along the border where people live temporarily or spend the night before continuing journeys into Colombia, but added that there had been no official complaints yet in the government-run quarantine shelters.
“It’s very difficult to follow these cases because of their extreme mobility,” she said. “These women do not spend more than a week in one place.”
In the Norte de Santander region – of which Cúcuta, where Gabriela lives, is the capital – the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says it has identified 51 cases of sexual and gender-based violence so far in 2020, compared to 135 cases in all of 2019. Those numbers also likely do not tell the whole story, government and NGO officials say, again because undocumented migrant women often do not report violent incidents.
UNHCR has noticed an increase in demands for shelter from Venezuelan migrant women since lockdown measures rolled out in Colombia, said Carla Carrión, a UNHCR protection officer in Cúcuta.
The agency runs three temporary women-only shelters managed by local partners. The shelters track instances of sexual abuse that victims report have taken place inside Venezuela, on their journeys to Colombia, or in Colombian territory.
“The risk of being sexually abused is enormous, and that – added to the fear of reporting [abuse] – puts them in the worst scenario when it comes to lack of protection.”
None of the shelters are currently full, because they are following social distancing rules. The shelter for women who have experienced gender-based violence is hosting 18 women (out of 25 beds); the one serving women who have experienced sexual exploitation and abuse hosts 10 women (out of 16 spots); and at the third – for pregnant women and women with babies – there are 13 women in 32 available spots. UNHCR says women stay in the shelters only temporarily – for about three months on average – and then receive psychosocial and economic support for another six months.
A WhatsApp hotline for migrant women set up in Cúcuta by Ladysmith, a collective of feminist researchers, also registered a sharp increase in the number of calls after the lockdown measures were put in place, particularly those related to domestic violence.
Human and sex trafficking has been on the rise during the pandemic, according to a recent report by the Observatory of the Venezuela Migration Project and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The study notes that the number of migrants found to be victims of trafficking was 20 percent higher during the first four months of 2020 than for the whole of 2019. The overwhelming majority of the victims are Venezuelan women.
Gabriela is taking steps to avoid becoming a victim of sexual exploitation or abuse. She is taking part in a course offered by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which also provides her with funds to assist with living expenses. She says the classes have helped her identify different types of sexual and gender-based violence and how to take steps to ensure her well-being.
Some women in the course have experienced sexual violence; others, like Gabriela, are single mothers. “The training has opened our eyes,” she says, noting that she is now aware of situations she once took for granted, like verbal abuse. “I learned how to value myself.”
The IRC also runs a residential clinic for sexual abuse survivors in Cúcuta, offering medical care and psychosocial support. By the time women leave the clinic, after three or four months of treatment, they will have phone numbers from three other Venezuelan women they befriended and can reach out to if they are involved in other violent incidents.
“They’re completely isolated and they know nobody,” said Marianne Aparicio, IRC’s country director in Colombia. “So we try to reconstruct their social safety, a very minimum one.”
‘Trochas’ and sexual assault
Even with restrictions on mobility, Venezuelans continue to cross into Colombia during the pandemic in search of food or work, arriving as living conditions in Venezuela continue to sink. Those who make the trip must travel via irregular crossings known as trochas. For women, that puts them at risk of sexual abuse at the hands of gangs who control those pathways.
Uniandes, a civilian non-profit on the Venezuelan side of the river that separates the two countries, calculates that about 4,000 people cross the river from Venezuela into Cúcuta every day through the trochas. These crossings are controlled by criminal gangs and trafficking networks that charge around 10,000 Colombian pesos ($2.65) per person – a sizable sum considering the basic monthly salary in Venezuela is less than $4. Roughly 90 trochas extend along the Norte de Santander border region.
Last year, the IRC noted an increase in the number of sexual assaults in January and May, two months when migrants turned to the trochas because the Venezuelan government had closed border crossings. Now, legal crossings are largely closed once again. Several Venezuelans who use the trochas frequently to work or shop in Colombia and then return home said they believed the trip had become more dangerous since the official borders closed. Some had family members killed while crossing to buy food or had seen people getting robbed while crossing the river.
Venezuelan women who report abuse at unauthorised crossings are often told that the Colombian police cannot investigate because the assaults occurred outside their jurisdiction, said Alejandra Vera, director of the Cúcuta-based feminist collective Mujer, Denuncia y Muévete (Woman, Report and Move). In addition, many are afraid of being deported if they report sexual abuse to the Colombian authorities, she noted.
In their research between January and July 2019, members of the collective identified more than 900 pregnant Venezuelan women who arrived in the Norte de Santander region who requested abortions and said their pregnancies were, for the most part, the result of sexual violence.
Adriana Pérez, from the Gender Observatory of Norte de Santander, says some women crossing the border end up with traffickers and are taken to brothels within Colombia. Others are brought to villas to service groups involved in the Colombian armed conflict, she said. Many of these women are never heard from again, she added.
For Gabriela, staying in Colombia means skimpy meals and growing uncertainty as quarantine measures stunt the economy and shutter services like soup kitchens.
Yet, going back to Venezuela means returning to crushing poverty. One of Gabriela’s sisters opted to return to Venezuela in April. After the quarantine took effect, the sister, who asked not to be named, found herself out of money, with an 11-year-old son, and living on the streets of Pasto, a city 26 hours southwest of Cúcuta by highway. She left her son in Cali, with other family members, before returning to Venezuela.
Inside Venezuela, the sister was in two separate government quarantine facilities for a total of four weeks, Gabriela says. Family members were able to give her clothes and food at the second facility, in their home state of Aragua, in northern Venezuela, before she was released.
When Gabriela last spoke with her family, who used a neighbour’s phone, they told her they were ok. But her sister was already talking about a return to Colombia, saying food was scarce in Venezuela. “She has to come back for her son,” Gabriela says. “But right now it’s very difficult, because everything is closed.”