Bogota – Colombia – Breyan Romero was forced to leave the hostel he rented in downtown Bogota, unable to pay his daily rent of $ 3.
The 24-year-old, who uses a walker because of his paralyzed legs, arrived two years ago from Venezuela’s Zulia state in search of a better life. He sold cookies on the streets and, even if the days were hard, he was able to earn enough to pay his rent and put food on the table.
But the past few days have been difficult for Romero and many others in Colombia, with a national quarantine of 19 days in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The streets are deserted and informal workers are forced to stay inside like everyone else.
“The owner kept my phone because I couldn’t pay my last rent,” said Romero, from outside the apartment block where he had to move in with his cousins, who say their last supplies are ‘exhaust.
Colombia is now hosting nearly 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have left their country in recent years, fleeing a collapsing economy, poverty, food and medical shortages and a political crisis.
Jozef Merkx, head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Colombia, told Al Jazeera that UNHCR does not have exact figures on Venezuelan informal workers, but “what we do know is that almost 60 percent of the 1.77 million Venezuelans in Colombia do not ‘have no regular status’. A study published by the Externado University of Bogota in February found that only 25 percent of Venezuelans have an employment contract.
Milsen Solana, 39, of the Venezuelan border state Tachira, sold coffee and empanadas in the busy streets of Bogota before quarantine began on March 24.
She lives in the same building as Romero, with her husband and two children, and worries that it will take some time before she can resell. Her family has had less food in the past few days because her supplies are low, with no money to buy more.
“It’s really difficult because what we earn daily is what we live – it becomes impossible,” said Solana, wearing a face mask that she herself made from elastic bands and material. She couldn’t justify spending the 2,000 Colombian pesos ($ 0.50) on a mask.
Solana – like many other Venezuelans that Al Jazeera has spoken to – also pointed to rising food prices during the quarantine period, making things even more precarious for her penniless household.
Venezuelans told Al Jazeera that a pound of chicken has gone from about 3,500 to 4,500 Colombian pesos ($ 0.90 to $ 1.15). A bag of oranges from 2,800 to 3,400 Colombian pesos ($ 0.70 to $ 0.85). And the price of an egg went from 300 to 600 Colombian pesos ($ 0.07 to $ 0.15). These small changes have a huge effect on the lives of the poor who are unable to work.
Informal workers in Colombia are the hardest hit by quarantine as a whole. But Venezuelans are in a worse state, said Gimena Sanchez, the main human rights defender in Colombia at the Washington think-tank on Latin America.
“They have no family or national networks to help them get through this difficult time. They have to survive in the informal sector by selling what they can on the street and there are no buyers. This will drive many of them into illicit activities, “she said. said to Al Jazeera.
Last week, street vendors, delivery people and sex workers, among other informal workers, broke their quarantine and gathered in front of mayors in various cities in Colombia to ask for help. Local media reported that the vast majority were Venezuelans and that there had been confrontations with the police. In Bogota, the protesters shouted “we are hungry”.
On the same day, the Colombian government announced that it would provide support to three million Colombian families who are in the “informal economy” during the quarantine period. There was no specific mention of helping Venezuelans.
The Colombian government had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment at the time of publication.
Bogota mayor Claudia Lopez said the quarantine period would likely be extended, adding to the concerns of informal workers.
“We know quarantine is necessary, but the problem is that if we can’t work, we don’t have money for food – so we need the government to help us,” said Grecia Vargas, 30 years, in the cramped apartment. she shares with her two grandchildren and her husband, Kristian, in a working class district of Bogota.
Vargas is from Caracas, where she worked in a bank. Her husband was a police officer.
Before the quarantine began in Bogota, they both worked as motorcycle delivery drivers. They came to Colombia two years ago looking for better opportunities and trying to send money back to their families.
“The last time I spoke to the owner, she said that she should be paid no matter what, because she lives on this money herself. I understand that, “said Grecia, referring to her rent of $ 125 due at the end of March.
“I fear that it will move us, with the children and everything,” she said last month.
Measures against the coronavirus also affect soup kitchens and shelters in Colombia, which Venezuelans once relied on for meals and shelter.
“It is truly a dark period that Venezuelans are facing inside Colombia. The soup kitchens have closed, so Venezuelans are left without food, “said Marianne Menjivar, Colombian national director of the International Rescue Committee.
“Typically, Venezuelans go to the streets of Colombia to sell food and seek their livelihood through informal economic activities,” Menjivar told Al Jazeera.
“But now the streets are empty because Colombia is blocked. If you are a Venezuelan and you barely make a living on the street, there is no one left to buy you anything. Venezuelans will be hungry, will not have access to water and no access to hand washing, and some will soon be homeless, which is risky for the spread of the virus, “said Menjivar.
His [coronavirus] an unexpected thing. We came here to have a better life. In Venezuela we had no food and it was precarious … Now we almost always experience the same thing here.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that to effectively fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America, it is essential that governments adopt specific measures that can help those in the informal sector to afford to contribute to preventive measures to spread the virus.
“These measures should include, but are not limited to, Venezuelans to avoid contributing to the rise of xenophobia in the region,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, deputy director of the Americas division of HRW.
For thousands of Venezuelans like Romero, Solana and Vargas, their dreams of a better life in Colombia have crumbled under the coronavirus.
” His [coronavirus] an unexpected thing. We came here to have a better life. In Venezuela we didn’t have food and it wasn’t safe, “said Solana.
“Now we almost always experience the same thing here. ”