Hyperinflation and shortages caused by a political crisis have led more than four million Venezuelans to leave their country in the last few years. 1.3 million of them are in Colombia. Since the Venezuelan authorities re-opened the borders at the beginning of June, thousands of people have been migrating into Colombia every day. In the world’s second largest migration flow after Syria, people are deprived of basic needs, such as access to health, accommodation and education. The Terre des Hommes (TDH) team in Colombia fights every day to ensure families have their rights respected and a safe place where they can start anew and in dignity.
“Two T-shirts, two pairs of trousers and the clothes my baby is wearing.” Everything else that Maria Alejandra* took with her over the border was stolen. Holding her one-year-old daughter in her arms, she looks around; there are about 40 people in a similar situation who have just arrived at the first shelter where soup is being offered and a place to sleep at night. She still has 50 hours of walking ahead of her to reach Bucaramanga, the next stop before heading to Peru. Little Fiora* gives us an exhausted smile and puts her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“I decided to leave the country when my sister, who has four children, knocked on my door to ask for some rice and I didn’t even have enough to feed my own child,” Maria Alejandra says. Daniel Calzada, the head of TDH’s multi-country delegation explains: “The Venezuelan Government is running an economic policy that doesn’t allow people to live.”
On the road for weeks
Some cross the border to return with urgently needed food and medicines, others want to settle in the border area in Colombia. Like many other families, Maria Alejandra and her daughter belong to a third group who have no official documents, making it impossible for them to travel on public transport. To reach another city or country all they can do is walk. “When we talk about ‘caminantes’ – walkers, we talk about families in street situations with all the associated vulnerabilities,” says Analia Agudelo Restrepo, TDH’s field coordinator in Colombia for the Venezuela crisis.
Around 500 people can be observed every day on the 206 km road from the border city Cucuta to the transit city Bucaramanga, walking through the hills along narrow, winding streets. The view of the green hills and the blue sky is breath taking; a huge contrast to these exhausted people who have been on the road carrying babies and all they own in their arms for days, even weeks. In the moment the neighbouring countries tighten their migration policy, these people try to reach them before its implementation. They are at risk of being robbed or exploited. Their smiles have been frozen by the cold that met them in the Andes and their strength has been broken by the difficulties they have encountered in finding shelter and at least one meal a day.
One of the few to help on the road
TDH was one of the first and still is one of the few organisations along the road that connects Cucuta with Bucaramanga. Our social workers identify the most vulnerable cases, so that they can get support. To help them survive, we provide them with warm clothes, food vouchers, baby nappies, hygiene kits including toilet paper and toothbrushes, or sometimes cash so they can buy any urgent supplies. We also coordinate with our partner NGO SOS Children’s Villages, which covers the second part of the road, so they can bring the most vulnerable to their centre in Bucaramanga where families can spend the night and get access to transport.
Lina Marcela Rojas, TDH’s head of child protection for the Venezuela crisis says: “The type of migrants arriving in Colombia changed within months. At the beginning of 2019, they were young, strong men. Now there are whole families, pregnant mothers with babies. It shows how difficult the situation has become in Venezuela.”
Coordinating humanitarian aid
A few days later, back at the bridge that separates Venezuela and Colombia, the influx is still the same. People wait hours in queues without water or food to have their passports stamped. Here, TDH coordinates with other organisations such as the UNHCR and IOM to improve the conditions of people crossing by foot, the only way their home country allows them through. Some organisations look for infrastructure: information will be provided over loudspeakers and toilets and washing stations are organised. As child protection expert, TDH delivers emergency aid to the families most in need.
Access to education and health
Near the border, where a lot of migrating families settle, TDH focuses on helping them to get documentation, the key to access basic services. “There are many vulnerable people in the region of Cucuta who arrived here recently, they have no access to work and lack basic needs, such as a roof over their heads, education and healthcare. It’s all about documentation; if you have a passport or a permit you can access these rights. This is why our priority is to give legal help to these families so they can get documentation,” explains Analia.
This legal struggle affected Rocio, a Colombian mother who emigrated to Venezuela and then returned because of the crisis. She had difficulties getting passports for her children, which are needed for their place at school and to access healthcare.
“Every time I went to the doctor when my daughter was ill, the security officers turned us away as she didn’t have Colombian nationality. TDH’s lawyer helped us a lot. Now we have a room, health insurance and we can go to the doctor.”
Her 15-year-old son Jefferson says: “My dream is to study here. But for the moment, I’m still working to help my father set up a small business.” His Venezuelan father, Dixon, has no permit. He swapped his job in the military to become an ice cream seller at traffic lights. The family of five left their home and now share a 10m2 room with one bed. Dixon says: “We ran out of money, so we crossed the border. First, my wife came with our five-year-old daughter, then I came with the other children.”
With the help of the lawyers at TDH, they managed to get passports for their children. “Thanks to that, our daughter can now keep her place at school,” smiles Rocio, full of gratitude. The father’s permit is on the way. He adds: “I don’t earn much, but without documentation, this is all I can do. We’re waiting for my permit. Then, I’m sure my son will soon be able to study!”
Step by step towards a future
“The most important thing is to provide an opportunity for the person to move forward and find solutions. We give them the space to change their life and the desire to say, ‘Yes, I can do something for my family’,” explains Analia, our field coordinator.
At home, Dixon proudly shows us his hotdog stand, which he is building. The tears from when he talked about how thankful he is for the help they received vanish and a big smile lights up his face. He explains: “The fundamental basis of being a father is not to stay there if your family is here. I told myself, if there are all of us, we’ll start again together. I don’t want to live only to eat, to survive. We don’t have much money here, but we can do something with it. The psychologist at TDH helps us a lot. My dream is to run a small restaurant with my wife. I’m now fighting to set up the hotdog stand instead of selling ice creams; I know we’ll succeed.” And Rocio concludes: “When you have faith and optimism, and you both love your children, you’ll always find a way for your dreams to come true.”
Photo credits: ©Tdh/Sebastian Delgado
*Names changed to protect identities