More older migrants crossing into Colombia as Venezuelan crisis deepens
‘Most of these people go to sell sweets on the streets. Or they have to beg to be able to eat’
People cross from San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela to Cucuta in Colombia through ‘trochas’ – illegal trails – near the Simon Bolivar international bridge, on November 20th 2019. Photograph: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP via Getty
Emma Perez is banging on the heavy metal door of the soup kitchen hoping to get her family something to eat. She arrived in Colombia the previous night and, finding nowhere to stay, slept outside a shop on a makeshift cardboard mattress, wrapping her daughter and her granddaughter up in a borrowed sheet. She is exhausted and still no clearer about where the family is going to eat or sleep.
“My only thought was to go to Colombia,” says the 52-year-old grandmother, crying as she explains this is the first time she has ever left Venezuela. “There are children who have died from malnutrition. We can’t get medicines to bring down a fever. There we don’t have a way to live.”
As the head of the family Perez led a group of five – including a 13-year-old daughter with kidney problems and her two-year-old grandson – on the 10-hour journey to the border.
They were warned that with nowhere to stay they should take hardly anything with them so their heaviest possession is a thermos flask she hoped to use to sell coffee: anything to make some money to keep them off the streets.
Now in Cúcuta you are seeing the irregulars and the most vulnerable
With the Venezuelan migration crisis now entering its fifth year, older migrants are an increasingly common sight among those crossing the border into Colombia. Some, like Perez, are the heads of families or principle care-givers for grandchildren left behind when the working-age parents left Venezuela a few years ago.
Others come alone, desperate not to put extra pressure on families struggling to feed younger children. Many arrive with complex health problems for which they were not receiving attention in Venezuela’s struggling healthcare system.
Many cry when they speak about the pressure they are under: limited by their age from finding secure employment opportunities and having lost everything they spent their lives working for.
Venezuela’s economy has collapsed under socialist president Nicolás Maduro and the country is mired in a deep political crisis, with opposition-held National Assembly head Juan Guaidó having declared himself president last January.
Jean Carlos Andrade is the co-ordinator of the Casa of Divine Providence next to the Simon Bolivar bridge, which serves 8,000 meals a day to desperate migrants. He says they are now seeing 500-600 older and elderly people a day, and around 1,000 children.
“After the children, the elderly are the most affected” by the crisis, he says. “Many have high-cost diseases and need medicines they can’t afford there but that they also can’t get here.
“The older migrants tell me they want another opportunity to work or to be useful for something, but that in Venezuela there are no opportunities.”
Like others working in the field, he says those arriving now have fewer resources than ever, and are “almost hopeless” with scant chance to make a new life this side of the border.
Now you can’t walk around the streets with a bag of food because someone will take it off you
“The first to arrive were the professionals, who moved on to places like Peru, Chile, or Bogota,” he says, adding that next came those of working age hoping to find manual work. “Now in Cúcuta you are seeing the irregulars and the most vulnerable.”
In a recent report the charity Save the Children warned that as more families migrate, “more elderly persons, chronically ill persons and children are on the move”. Already some 4.6 million people have left Venezuela. By the end of 2020, experts fear the figure could reach 6.5 million.
“The general consensus is that people entering Colombia are progressively more vulnerable which is normal in these kind of mass flows,” says Federico Sersale, the head of the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, for La Guajira, the border region to the north of here. “This is a trend in most mass displacements, the same thing happened in Syria, the most vulnerable started to come after.”
Linda Gamarra, a social worker at the UN-run camp in La Guajira, says they have housed people in their late 70s and early 80s; a migrant aged 86 was given shelter in their tents on the border. They have also noticed an uptick in grandparents arriving in charge of their grandchildren.
“We have seen elderly people that were nurses, engineers, teachers. But they say that they go and get their pensions and it only buys them two meals a month,” she says. “Most of these people go to sell sweets on the streets. Or they have to beg to be able to eat.”
Limited work options
One of the women at the camp is Doris Cogoylo, who is 68 but looks older. She has five children and 12 grandchildren in Venezuela, living in the country’s former oil powerhouse city of Maracaibo. She is frail and thin but decided to come and work informally selling coffee on the Colombian side of the border to make some money to help out.
“Things got more difficult, I had to come,” she says. “I prefer to be here and send them something. Or when I make enough to buy flour or oil, I take some there.”
Outside the soup kitchen in Cúcuta, a number of older migrants queue up every day. Some cross over the border early each morning, sharing stories of how the national decline has wreaked havoc on their personal lives.
“My town is like a ghost town,” says a 59-year old unemployed agricultural worker who gets up at 5.30 in the morning to walk over the border to get to the queue outside the soup kitchen. He stays for breakfast, then starts queuing again for lunch. Then he walks for an hour to get back home.
“Work options are limited,” he says, of life on the Venezuelan side of the border, while standing in the rain. “Everything has stalled, or paralysed.”
Beside him is a another of the “pendulum” walker migrants who cross each day. He once worked for the Venezuelan ministry of health but is left so broke by a pension paid in the devalued bolivar that if it wasn’t for lunch here, he says he would be on the streets. His T-shirt hangs from him, and in his hand is a bag full of plastic bottles which he sells for a total of for €1.60 to be recycled.
“Venezuela was the fourth richest country in the world in terms of resources,” a 65-year-old civil engineer whose work once took him to Morocco and who remembers salutations in Arabic and Italian. “It was richer than Switzerland, than Japan. But then the socialists arrived. Everything in Venezuela ended.”
Perez, who used to work in a school, once had a house, two apartments and a car. She says one of the properties was seized from her, the others she had to sell to buy her daughter’s medicines.
“Life was good, we had everything, you were never hungry,” she says of the Venezuela she loved. “Every day it was sad to see how we got lower and lower. Now you can’t walk around the streets with a bag of food because someone will take it off you.”
With the morning sun rising higher she walks away to find the makeshift camp where dozens of families put up tarpaulin and cheap tents to sleep on the dirt football pitch each night. Alongside it, people are already starting to queue up for the soup kitchen’s lunch offering.
One mother feeds her baby sitting on the floor nearby. A pregnant woman with her belly poking from under her T-shirt sits waiting on a piece of cardboard nearby. The road smells of urine, the gutters lie full of rubbish.
The situation here, a stone’s throw from the Simon Bolivar border bridge, is complicated. It’s an unlikely spot for salvation. But here, at least, there’s food.
This story was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation