Venezuelan authorities say at least 56,000 Venezuelans returned between March and mid-June. Colombian authorities monitoring border crossings believe that at least 60,000 Venezuelan migrants have returned to the country via the Colombian city of Cucuta alone since March. They expect tens of thousands more to try to return in the coming weeks.
Pedro Roque traveled, often on foot, the 2,100 miles from Lima, Peru, to the border crossing at Cucuta. He had lost his job in a chicken restaurant, he said, because of Covid-19. Without salary, he could no longer pay the rent and decided to go home.
In Peru, average working hours have fallen by almost 80% in the Lima region, the capital, since the start of the pandemic, according to the International Labor Organization. And the entire Latin American region has seen almost three times more people in need of food aid, according to data from the United Nations World Food Program.
While countries with large populations of Venezuelan immigrants such as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have adopted strict lockdown measures to contain the virus, Venezuelan migrants have little options. Most of the migrants CNN interviewed for the story said they worked in the informal economy with no social assistance to rely on during the closure.
In Cucuta, Roque sleeps under an awning with three other people while waiting for his turn to cross the border. Social distancing is not a priority, he said. “Covid is a respiratory disease, isn’t it? If someone walked 35, 40 kilometers a day to get here, for weeks, he didn’t Covid. A patient would not have survived what we went through, ”he said when asked why. he was not wearing a mask.
The makeshift camps where people wait to cross the border do not allow for social distancing. There are no toilets or running water here, and the largest camp consists of cardboard shelters and black garbage bags under which some 1,300 Venezuelans wait their turn to return home.
Colombian authorities say they are not sure how many people live in the camp. Each time a group leaves, new migrants take their place.
Waiting to be called home
Few would qualify Venezuela as an ideal place to wait for a pandemic.
Ninety-six percent of the population lives below the poverty line according to a recent independent survey by three major universities in Caracas. As CNN previously reported, most Venezuelan hospitals lack running water for days, doctors and patients cannot get the drugs they need, and thousands of health workers have left the country. looking for better opportunities abroad.
But people need support and community in times of crisis. An international aid worker who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media said that Venezuelan migrants who had not built support networks in a new adopted country were most likely to return home to Venezuela.
“If I have to starve, I want to starve at home, with my family,” said Roque, the restaurant worker.
This desire to return home seems to have overcome all doubt about the risk of spreading the virus. Like Roque, some migrants waiting in Cucuta told CNN they thought they had proven themselves after surviving the long journey to get there. Others simply stated that they had greater challenges to overcome than the virus.
However, to check the spread of the virus, most migrants seeking to enter Venezuela receive a color-coded bracelet from the Colombian authorities upon arrival in Cucuta. Roque was red.
Each day, a group wearing a different colored bracelet is invited to board the buses, which take them to a coronavirus screening center managed by the department of Norte de Santander, where they isolate and can be tested for coronavirus by discomfort. The temperature of each migrant is tested several times a day; if someone has a fever, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is done on them.
Without fever or negative PCR test, they are allowed to cross the border, as long as the Venezuelan authorities approve it. This agreement between the two countries is informal; no government recognizes the other and, in theory, the border is closed.
Migrants must then isolate themselves again after arriving in Venezuela, for at least 12 days before being allowed to return home. The Maduro government has established isolation centers in towns near the border, where migrants have to stay.
Venezuela has so far registered far fewer cases than other countries in the region. However, international observers have questioned Venezuela’s ability to test for the virus, saying the actual number of coronavirus infections could be much higher.
Only 350 Venezuelans are allowed to enter the country on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for an official total of 1,050 per week – a number that reflects Venezuela’s limited ability to quarantine citizens upon arrival, CNN said Venezuelan border authority. However, CNN also saw migrants crossing the border on a Tuesday and Colombian authorities say the border is sometimes reopened at very short notice.
The Maduro government has declared that the right of citizens to enter their own country is respected and that slow entry is necessary to protect the rest of the Venezuelan population from the virus.
On the Colombian side, the authorities are already worried about the moment when the hourglass will tip again, and the difficulties of Venezuela will again force the migrants to leave.
“If these people do not find a form of survival in Venezuela, they may well try to return to the same places where they have stayed for the past three years, such as in a giant migratory swing where they spend time in Venezuela and others abroad, “Bautista, the secretary of the Department of Migration, told CNN.
Others believe that the swing has already started: Adrian Lopez and his family of five are now returning to Bogota, where Adrian worked in the informal economy.
They left the Colombian capital in March after the lock was imposed, and arrived in Cucuta in early April after a trek of 370 miles. But in the chaos of their arrival, they never managed to register for one of the color-coded groups to be tested for the virus. After two months in the migrant camp near the border, they gave up on returning to Venezuela.
“I was hungry there (at the camp),” said Adrian. “My son is three months old and being born here, he is a Colombian citizen. They can’t kick us out. At least in Bogotá, I know the place and I will try to find a job, one way or another. “