Venezuela’s refugee crisis is finally getting an international response

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CUCUTA, Colombia — Every night, convoys of government trucks come around to gather hundreds unauthorized Venezuelans from the public places where they used to sleep and return them to their side of the Rio Táchira. Others are chased across the border by police sirens.

But every day, the masses return, flooding back over the open border, in desperate search of a means to earn enough money for food and basics.

Years of rising hunger and violence brought on by Venezuela’s spiraling economic collapse has driven hundreds of thousands of people to Colombia, overwhelming this green and steamy border city, and transforming it into the unofficial ground zero of South America’s most pressing refugee crisis.

Now, at long last, local authorities say, the international community has started to notice, and Cúcuta is set to be the epicenter of the world’s humanitarian response.

“Last year when I was in Europe, no one knew anything about the situation here,” said Father Francesco Bortignon, director of the migrant safe house Centro de Migracions, a partner of U.N. agencies in the region. “Now we’ve seen a huge jump in who is coming to see for themselves.”

CUCUTA, Colombia — Every night, convoys of government trucks come around to gather hundreds unauthorized Venezuelans from the public places where they used to sleep and return them to their side of the Rio Táchira. Others are chased across the border by police sirens.

But every day, the masses return, flooding back over the open border, in desperate search of a means to earn enough money for food and basics.

Years of rising hunger and violence brought on by Venezuela’s spiraling economic collapse has driven hundreds of thousands of people to Colombia, overwhelming this green and steamy border city, and transforming it into the unofficial ground zero of South America’s most pressing refugee crisis.

Now, at long last, local authorities say, the international community has started to notice, and Cúcuta is set to be the epicenter of the world’s humanitarian response.

“Last year when I was in Europe, no one knew anything about the situation here,” said Father Francesco Bortignon, director of the migrant safe house Centro de Migracions, a partner of U.N. agencies in the region. “Now we’ve seen a huge jump in who is coming to see for themselves.”

Delegations from Switzerland, Japan, Germany, the European Union, and others had toured through to identify funding needs. They were among a growing cohort of other global authorities taking notice of the crisis on Colombia’s border.

Back home, migrants say, store shelves are empty and many families eat only once a day. People die of curable diseases for a stark lack of medicine. Armed gangs extort and harass freely. Hyperinflation has turned everyone’s savings to dust and made a scarcity of cash, grinding the economy to a stop.

The downfall tripped off in the dying days of Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez continues to hit new lows each day. Current president Nicolas Maduro has crushed protests and tightened his party’s grip on power, denying the existence of a humanitarian crisis and crippling hopes of political reform.

More than 1.5 million people have already fled Venezuela, and no one expects the tide to subside.

Maduro has also prohibited the entry of most foreign humanitarian aid into Venezuela, pushing an ever-growing wave of migrants to the border.

“This could destabilize the entire region. We need to support Colombia’s efforts to help these people NOW!” tweeted World Food Program director David Beasley during his visit to Cúcuta in March.

Soon after, USAID announced $2 million in funding for the WFP in Colombia; it was the U.S.’s first targeted spending for humanitarian needs surrounding Venezuela’s crisis.

“This is a sign that donors are beginning to take interest,” said Deborah Hines, head of the WFP in Colombia. “We have to prepare for a big influx.”

She said new staff in her office were designing a plan to “scale up” the WFP response, while other U.N. agencies were currently planning a response and preparing an appeal to donors.

Thousands of migrants and vendors crowd outside the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cúcuta on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: Pu Ying Huang

For now, the program has invested its fresh funds in food vouchers for Venezuelan families and funding for charity kitchens in the border area.

In early April, WFP staff stood watch to see their investment in action, as more than a thousand Venezuelans queued for a free plate of chicken, rice, and beans from the Casa de Divina Providencia, a kitchen of the Catholic Church that has served migrants at the border since last July.

The WFP said it began funding about 6,000 meals per month at the kitchen as of April, with plans to increase material support and help grow the kitchen’s capacity.

Many in line said they’d eat their only meal of the day there. The kitchen serves 1,000 breakfasts and 1,000 lunches each day, but that barely does it. Servers say they close the doors on a crowd of up to one hundred people still waiting hungry outside.

“Every day, there are more,” said Father Jose David Caña Perez, administrator of the kitchen. “Every day, more poor people arrive.”

Father Perez’s sentiment is common here. Thousands of Venezuelans go hungry each day in the area, say leaders with the church and NGOs. Even those who come with moderate resources have very little to their name, due to the collapse of their currency. They often arrive from Venezuela without money for a bus ticket onward, or without a passport to legally make the journey.

Cúcuta, already a place plagued by unemployment, doesn’t have income opportunities to offer the surge of new arrivals. The region now faces the added pressure of policing the violence and organized crime that have accompanied the crisis.

Few voices in Cúcuta agree on exactly what the response should entail.

Bortignon from the Centro de Migraciones said Cúcuta needed housing where Venezuelan families could take shelter and food aid for a limited time while completing the process of getting documented. Then, they could move on legally to other parts of the country or the continent.

Until now, the government’s approach has been to clamp down on border traffic instead of receiving the migrants. The new, more welcoming approach makes some people worry that offering shelter will only attract and maintain a large destitute population in the city.

“We need help, but we don’t want refugee camps,” said Carlos Luna, the director of the chamber of commerce. “We want other approaches that support work opportunities.”

Paula Andrea Rojas, an officer of World Food Program, speaks to Venezuelan refugees at the Casa de Paso Divina Providencia food kitchen in Cucuta on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: Pu Ying Huang

He advocates a plan to survey Venezuelan migrants for their work abilities, then transport them to other Colombian cities where authorities have agreed to accept workers with skills.

Venezuelans at the border said they’d be happy for a chance to get out of Cúcuta.

“They should us give help with transportation,” said Selena Mejila, standing beside her stack of luggage while her husband waited all day in line to stamp his passport. She had family to receive her in Ecuador but didn’t have money to reach them. Many others echoed her predicament.

Many also said they were surprised to find a scene of mild chaos at the border, where tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross each day, either to migrate or to work for the day and return. Informal vendors crowd the roadway packed with pedestrian traffic through a neighborhood rife with cross-border gang violence.

“They should enforce more order here,” said Rodney Lesel, 42, a former soldier from Maracaibo, Venezuela, on his way to meet family in Bogotá. “It’s very disorganized.”

Cover image: A family crosses into Colombia from Venezuela at the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cúcuta on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: Pu Ying Huang

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