CUCUTA, Colombia – Venezuela’s longstanding economic and political crisis, which has led millions to migrate abroad and has been exacerbated recently by severe gasoline shortages, is causing major humanitarian challenges at the main gateway linking that Caribbean nation with neighboring Colombia.
Similar scenes play out every day, with thousands of people emigrating westward to seek a better life outside their homeland and others forced to return to Venezuela due to poverty and the economic impact of coronavirus-triggered lockdowns and slowdowns elsewhere.
The coming and going of Venezuelans of all ages, including many children, is an everyday sight in La Parada – a hamlet on the Colombian side of the Simon Bolivar International Bridge that lies just south of the city of Cucuta – even though that border crossing has been closed for months.
Although the number of people migrating to Colombia fell sharply at the start of the coronavirus crisis, there has a been a significant rise in traffic in recent weeks via so-called “trochas,” or illegal crossing points.
In response, authorities and humanitarian organizations have been scrambling to attend to these people in La Parada and prevent a further wave of COVID-19 cases in already hard-hit Colombia.
“We’re now seeing a significant return of migrants from Venezuela toward the interior of Colombia, and we’ve started taking some special measures aimed at discouraging their passage through irregular crossing points, through the trochas,” the borders and international cooperation secretary of the northwestern Colombian department of Norte de Santander, Victor Bautista, told EFE.
Among the recent arrivals are Maria Carvajal and her family, who have traveled more than 730 kilometers (450 miles) from Maracay, a city in the north-central Venezuelan state of Aragua, to San Cristobal (capital of the western Venezuelan border state of Tachira) in hopes of starting over again.
“It took us four days to get here with my whole family,” Carvajal told EFE, adding that six children are part of their group and have endured extremely long days of walking.
Drivers occasionally have stopped and given them a lift, Carvajal said, though adding that the group at one point had to walk for 13 straight hours.
She said she and her relatives have brought along some hairdressing equipment that they plan to use to earn a living and have no plans to return home.
“For now, no,” Carvajal said when asked if the difficulties could force them to return to Venezuela, whose economy has been battered in part by harsh United States sanctions aimed at ousting leftist incumbent Nicolas Maduro. “The truth is that in Venezuela right now there’s no future: no gas, no gasoline, no water, no food.”
Authorities in Norte de Santander, the department where La Parada is located, took measures this week “to prevent the irregular passage of Venezuelan migrants through 27 trochas,” Bautista said, adding that messages have been sent via the Tachira government informing migrants that no type of border crossing is currently permitted.
He said those efforts have included the deployment “of more than 700 soldiers and 200 police who are in the border region preventing illegal crossings.”
Authorities are not only concerned about migrants’ physical safety but also the health risks, considering that some of these people may be infected with COVID-19 and could cause an even greater health emergency in Colombia, which ranks in the top 10 worldwide in coronavirus cases.
The situation is even more complicated because even as throngs of people are trying to cross the border into Colombia, thousands of other Venezuelan emigrants who lost their sources of income due to coronavirus lockdowns in neighboring countries are waiting their turn to return to their homeland.
While the former typically carry no more than a suitcase and a few personal objects, the latter often travel with numerous items they managed to acquire by working abroad, including beds, mattresses and small electrical appliances.
Among those returning home is Jose Rafael Otero, who told EFE he made his decision after working for a year in Colombia selling vegetables and “any little thing” that could earn him some cash.
Dulce Maria Alvarez, who is seeking to cross the border with her family, also spoke to EFE about her decision to reverse course.
“We came from Guayaquil, Ecuador, because things got tough there; with the pandemic there’s almost no work, and if you find something, they want to pay us less,” she said.
Alvarez said she knows that going back to Venezuela will not be easy. but that if she has to fight to survive. she would rather do it in her homeland than abroad.
To cross the border, returning Venezuelans must register at an International Organization for Migration post in La Parada.
After undergoing COVID-19 testing, Colombian authorities place them in a temporary migrant camp set up with assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Since June 14, when that camp was opened, “more than 18,000 migrants have returned to their country of origin and have had significant security and support in their passage through the Simon Bolivar International Bridge,” Bautista said.
On Thursday alone, the center received 700 returning Venezuelans who must wait their turn to cross the border.
With Venezuelan authorities only allowing the re-entry of 200 people per weekday, the three humanitarian camps set up in Cucuta and its vicinity are permanently filled to capacity as they struggle to respond to a crisis with no end in sight.