From April 7-9, I visited Cucuta, a Colombian city bordering San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela, to understand the dimensions of the Venezuelan refugee crisis. That border is one of the most active crossings between the two countries, and over the past year it has become increasingly transited by Venezuelans. Official figures estimate that about 35,000 Venezuelans cross the border on a daily basis, but unofficial estimates from observers on the ground estimate that number to be much higher. It is also estimated that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people crossing stay in Colombia or travel to another country in the region. The rest are crossing for a few hours or a few days to work and/or get food and medicines not readily available in Venezuela. Below are some pictures and stories of places I visited and people I met during my visit.
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This is the farewell sign at Simon Bolivar International Bridge, one of the main crossings between Venezuela and Colombia. This was taken from the Colombian side, located at the city of Cucuta. Less than half a mile away is the Venezuelan city San Antonio del Táchira.
I came across this UNHCR car when approaching the Colombian-Venezuelan border in Cucuta. While the international community is slow to acknowledge the situation as a refugee crisis, it is not common to see the presence of the U.N. Refugee Agency in the absence of a refugee crisis.
Two Venezuelan citizens who live in Cucuta work on the Colombian side of the bridge, carrying bags and packages for travelers for more than 12 hours a day. They tell me that their carts are often confiscated by the National Guard on the Venezuelan side, for no particular reason.
This Venezuelan woman, who asked that her face be covered, spends her weekends in Cucuta cleaning the floor in one of the private bus companies that transports Venezuelans to destinations beyond Cucuta, including to other countries. She holds a doctoral degree in education, and tells me she earns more during weekends cleaning the floors than from her weekday job as a professional back home. ”I’m fortunate to have a job like this so that I can provide for my family,” she told me.
This couple told me they are crossing into Cucuta to buy insulin for the husband who suffers from diabetes. They are not able to get the insulin in Venezuela, and thus have no choice but to cross the border.
Yonathan told me his little brother suffers from epilepsy, and that it has become impossible to buy the medicine he needs. He crosses to Cucuta several times a day to sell fruits (given the limitations imposed by customs) to make enough money to be able to buy the medication for his brother, as well as food for his family.
This gentleman from the Colombian Red Cross told me they’ve treated almost 2,000 Venezuelans that have entered Cucuta from Venezuela. He says that many of the patients have been children that are undernourished and often look younger than they are.
Venezuelans don’t need a passport to enter Cucuta, but must have a “Border Mobility Card,” granted by the Colombian government. So far, over 1.6 million Venezuelans have applied for this card (they have been recently discontinued and won’t be renewed after their expiration dates). For those that want to continue their journey beyond Cucuta (to other cities in Colombia or other countries), they must go through passport control at the border (shown here).
In early April 2018, the Colombian government and other partners like the UNHCR, started a process to register all Venezuelans staying in Colombia regardless of their status. This is, according to Colombian government officials, one of the largest processes to register migrants ever. The idea is to have more accurate numbers (currently official figures say there are about 600,000 Venezuelans in Colombia, but non-official figures from observers on the ground reach over 1 million), so that the Colombian authorities can provide a more appropriate response to the massive exodus of Venezuelans. The authorities have repeatedly said that undocumented Venezuelans who register run no risk of deportation.
In this house, the local chapter of the Scalabrini International Migration Network hosts 120 Venezuelans for a few days upon their arrival to Colombia. The organization, run in conjunction with the local Catholic Church, provides Venezuelans with shelter, food, and migration advice.
This gentleman is an entrepreneur. He sells cellphone accessories. He told me: “I started with very little capital. Every profit I made I reinvested it. I make 30K pesos a day: 20K for food and lodging, 5K I reinvest and 5K I send home.”
These gentlemen are Venezuelan entrepreneurs selling wallets and purses made with tens of bills of (almost worthless) Venezuelan currency. Can you imagine what would do and how many jobs they could create with seed capital and basic business training? Wonders.
The local Catholic Church provides 8,000 hot meals per day all over Cucuta for Venezuelan refugees. In this public dining hall, I saw about 1,200 people of all ages who came for lunch. In the past eight months, they’ve served 400,000 hot meals to Venezuelans in Cucuta.