On a rainy Wednesday before Easter, hundreds of Venezuelan migrants shuffled into the brick-walled courtyard of the Divine Providence Shelter in the Colombian border town of Villa del Rosario, sat down at long, low wooden tables and waited patiently for lunch. A priest led Mass before scores of church volunteers served up steaming bowls of rice, lentils and sausages. The migrants tucked in.
Many wore threadbare clothes. Their sunken cheeks and wiry limbs suggested this was the first decent meal in days. Children were barefoot. One man hobbled in on crutches, his right leg amputated below the knee. Another pushed an elderly woman in a wheelchair.
These are the weary, often desperate victims of the worst migration crisis in recent Latin American history. Some had arrived from Venezuela that morning, escaping food shortages, hyperinflation, a collapsing economy, disease and violence. Others had been in Colombia for days or weeks, looking for work, scavenging for food, sleeping in the streets and avoiding deportation.
While the eyes of the world have been on the Syrian refugee crisis and the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, Venezuela’s humanitarian disaster has gone relatively unnoticed.
But the sheer number of people now fleeing the country is changing that. The UNHCR says 5,000 migrants are leaving every day: at that rate, 1.8 million people, more than 5 per cent of Venezuela’s population, will depart this year.
The Red Cross and the UN launched appeals last month and the US Agency for International Development made a first donation to what is likely to become a larger relief fund. The implosion of Venezuela, which has been building for some time, is becoming an international disaster.
"This crisis in Venezuela, which is now spilling into the broader region, is man-made," says Mark Green, head of USAid. He blamed the "delusional and inhumane policies" of the leftwing government of President Nicolás Maduro, which "exacerbated an avoidable humanitarian crisis".
It was not always like this. For decades, Venezuela was a net importer of people, luring Europeans with lucrative oil jobs. A generation ago, it was the wealthiest country in Latin America.
When Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, launching the socialist “Bolivarian revolution”, some wealthy Venezuelans left, fearing Cuban-style communism. But the vast majority stayed and many enjoyed the benefits of Chávez’s oil-financed social programmes. It is only recently, with Maduro at the helm, the economy collapsing and the revolution unravelling, that Venezuelans have departed en masse.
"We are potentially facing the biggest refugee crisis in our hemisphere in modern history" says Shannon O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Many are heading west to Colombia which, emerging from a long civil conflict of its own, is ill-equipped to receive them. There are now more than 600,000 Venezuelans in Colombia, twice as many as a year ago. Thousands have poured over the footbridge that separates the Venezuelan town of San Antonio from the Colombian city of Cúcuta. Walk the streets of Cúcuta and you find Venezuelans everywhere, selling cigarettes at the traffic lights, working as prostitutes, sleeping rough.
“I spent my first week in Cúcuta selling arepas on the streets, then empanadas, then bottles of water - anything to make a bit of money,” says 27-year-old Yamileth Medina, who left Venezuela in July. When her husband Alejandro and their four-year-old son followed her, they were robbed at gunpoint on their way to the frontier.
Alejandro’s passport was stolen and he made it to Colombia only by pleading with border guards. The family is seeking refugee status and is waiting to hear if they will be deported back to Venezuela. “I can’t stand the idea of going back,” Ms Medina says. “I hate the idea of my son growing up in that environment.”
‘Dying of hunger’
While Colombia has borne the brunt of the Venezuelan exodus it is far from alone. The UNHCR says 40,000 Venezuelan migrants arrived in Peru in the first two months of this year. Thousands more have emigrated to Panama, Ecuador, Chile, Spain, the US and beyond. Boats carrying Venezuelan migrants have landed on islands in the Caribbean. In January, one capsized off Curaçao, killing at least four people.
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum abroad has rocketed by 2,000 per cent since 2014. Brazil is another of the countries to have received a huge influx. In all, authorities and international organisations estimate some 70,000 Venezuelans have fled southwards to Brazil.
"We are dying of hunger," says Purificación Rivero, a 52-year-old woman from the Warao tribe who travelled 700km to Boa Vista in Brazil. "Three members of my family – a grandson, a son and an aunt – have already died of hunger. I blame the Venezuelan government, which is letting the poor die."
The collapse of the Venezuelan health system has prompted a resurgence of long-vanquished diseases. The government no longer provides reliable medical data and when the health minister revealed last year that the number of malaria cases had jumped 76 per cent in a year, pregnancy-related deaths had risen 66 per cent and infant mortality had climbed 30 per cent, she was promptly sacked.
A recent opposition-led survey suggested 79 per cent of Venezuelan hospitals have little or no running water. The days when the Chávez government prided itself on decent medical care for the poor are long gone.
The British Medical Journal recently reported an acute shortage of contraceptives, “contributing to spikes in unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal and infant mortality and sexually transmitted diseases”. HIV and Aids rates have risen in Venezuela to levels not seen since the 1980s.
Measles, eradicated in much of Latin America, has returned. Of the 730 confirmed cases in the region last year, all but three were in Venezuela. As people flee, they are taking the disease with them. In the first months of this year, there were 14 confirmed cases in Brazil and one in Colombia. All 15 victims were Venezuelan migrants.
"The infant mortality rate is on a par with Pakistan and the poverty rate of 85 per cent in on a par with Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa," says Dany Bahar of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "People are fleeing because if they stay, they die. They die because they don't get enough food to eat, they die because they get malaria and can't get treatment, they die because they need dialysis and can't get it."
Those who survive and get out face formidable challenges once they cross the border. In Colombia, half the migrants are pouring into Norte de Santander, one of the country's more lawless departments. While the Marxist guerrilla group, the Farc, has disarmed as part of the country's historic peace process, two smaller groups, the ELN and the EPL, are fighting to the north of Cúcuta, and two criminal gangs, the Rastrojos and Urabeños, are tussling for control of smuggling routes to and from Venezuela.
Non-governmental organisations in Cúcuta say that out of desperation, many Venezuelan migrants are drifting into organised crime and Colombia’s cocaine trade.
The irony of mass migration from Venezuela to Colombia is not lost on local residents. For decades, it was the other way around. During Colombia’s civil conflict, up to 4 million people fled to then-stable-and-prosperous Venezuela. Now, many are coming back.
José Domingo Sequeda left Colombia in 1979. Now 63 and living in the Venezuelan city of Valencia, he is considering selling up and returning to Colombia. “He doesn’t want to, because Venezuela has given him everything he has,” says his daughter Yurelys, who left Venezuela in January and now lives in Cúcuta. “But the situation there has become unbearable.”
As the number of migrants soars, tension with local populations are rising, particularly in northern Brazil where the border towns are too small to absorb large numbers of new arrivals. There are now an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans in Boa Vista, Roraima's state capital – 10 per cent of the city's population. "This is the first time we have such a flux of people at the border caused by a political crisis in a neighbouring country," says Doriedson Silva, co-ordinator of civil defence for the state of Roraima.
In the nearby town of Mucajaí, two Venezuelans killed a Brazilian during a bar brawl last month, officials say, prompting local residents to burn down a building housing migrants. "Some say we're a plague, nothing but dirty pigs," says Richard Gil, a 51-year-old Venezuelan who arrived in Brazil a month ago. "But we're decent families and we're all paying the price."
In Colombia too, animosity towards Venezuelans is growing and in February the government tightened border controls. But the frontier is 2,200km long – the distance from London to Athens – and is almost impossible to police properly. “The tightening of the border won’t keep people in Venezuela,” says Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, a senior advocate at Refugees International in Washington. “It will just drive up criminality, smuggling and trafficking, including sex trafficking.”
It is difficult to see what might change in Venezuela to stem the exodus. The economy has contracted 40 per cent in five years and is forecast to shrink further still. The IMF expects inflation to hit 13,000 per cent this year. There is a presidential election on May 20th but there seems little doubt that Maduro will ensure he wins. He refuses to allow humanitarian aid into the country, meaning its citizens will keep leaving.
Faced with that reality, international aid organisations are focusing their efforts outside Venezuela. USAid pledged $18.5 million (€15 million) to help migrants in Colombia and the UNHCR has appealed for an initial $46 million. The Red Cross has called for 2.2 million Swiss francs (€1.8 million) to help 120,000 Venezuelans in Colombia.
But such figures are minuscule set against the scale of the problem. Brookings estimates the cost of caring for Venezuela’s migrants at between $2.8 billion and $5.2 billion – money that has yet to be raised.
In the meantime, the job is falling to local charities, NGOs and the Catholic Church. At the Divine Providence Shelter, the bishop of Cúcuta, Víctor Manuel Ochoa, glides around the courtyard in his white soutane and scarlet zucchetto, comforting hungry migrants. The situation is much worse than a year ago when the lunches started. "Firstly, the number of people arriving has jumped, secondly they're travelling further and further to get here from the Venezuelan interior and thirdly their needs are greater. They're more desperate.
“We give them what we can, with love and affection, but we simply can’t feed everyone.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018