For the past three years, the country of Venezuela has experienced the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere due to reported failed economic policies, mismanagement and extensive corruption.
According the U.N., more than three million people left Venezuela since the crisis began. One million of those, many lacking official documentation, had gone to neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Peru or Ecuador.
However, the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who once fled their homes for neighbouring Colombia are now returning to their country.
As the coronavirus pandemic shuts down Colombia’s flights, borders and economy, some Venezuelan migrants say they see little choice but to return home. In the bid to avoid facing worse economic devastation and a crumbling health infrastructure.
Additionally, many of the 1.6 million Venezuelans in the country, cannot access help. A report says nearly 60% of Venezuelans in Colombia have not registered with the government and therefore cannot access vital services.
Those who work irregular jobs are finding their only income dried up, and some are so desperate that they’re picking up their few belongings and beginning the long, arduous trek home by foot.
We lost our jobs, we lost our house, we lost everything, and now we’re walking again,” Urbaneja said, by the side of a highway in Bogota. “The situation in Venezuela is worse than here, it’s absolutely terrible. But with the conditions created by the lockdown, we’re going.”
The deadly virus has killed 46 and infected 1,579 people in Colombia. The government of Colombian President Ivan Duque closed borders and imposed a three-week lockdown, expected to end April 26th, to try to curb the spread of COVID-19. The measures have caused hardship to many Colombians as well, but disproportionately affect migrants who have less labor and housing protection.
Since Colombia’s 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants often live in hostels that charge rent by the night, and mostly work in the informal economy, the crisis made many of them homeless almost immediately.
On Friday, one group of about fifteen young Venezuelans on the highway out of Bogota included two pregnant women. The group said they had already walked 350 miles from Cali, Colombia’s third city, after being evicted from their accommodation. Even though the border is closed, it is not difficult to go through informal crossings.
“In Venezuela, they might have more of a support network to fall back on, but Venezuela is going to be one of the places hit hardest by the virus, considering that its health care system collapsed years ago,” said Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “They really have a lot of bad options at the moment, as host country governments with limited resources are still trying to figure out their responses.”
“At a time when the world’s attention is focused on COVID-19, and as governments and populations, particularly health workers, heroically come together to combat this virus, we should not lose sight of the needs of the millions of Venezuelan refugees and migrants,” said Eduardo Stein, joint UNHCR-IOM Special Representative for refugees and migrants from Venezuela.
Venezuela however, may be a more dangerous destination with the country’s health system, lacking basic medicines, water and electricity, which was already struggling even before the coronavirus outbreak. Local doctors fear ’’Venezuela will be hard-hit by the virus.’’ due to lack of water, food, electricity and medical supplies, compounded with skyrocketing inflation and crushing US sanctions which has left the country largely unprepared for a contagion.
Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela’s Communication Minister announced 165 cases of Coronavirus and 7 deaths so far.