Venezuelans start to flee country again after months of Covid lockdown

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PAMPLONA, Colombia – Eleazar Hernández slept on a sidewalk amid light drizzle, temperatures dropping near zero and the roar of passing trucks.

The 23-year-old Venezuelan migrant was trying to travel to the Colombian city of Medellin with his wife, who was seven months pregnant.

But the couple were strapped for cash for transport by the time they reached Pamplona, ​​a small mountain town more than 482 km from their final destination. Unable to buy a bus ticket, Hernández hoped to take a ride in the back of a truck. It was the safest way to cross Berlin’s Paramo, an icy plateau 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) away.

“My wife can barely walk,” said Hernández, who had spent four days sleeping on the sidewalks of Pamplona. “We need transportation to get us out of here.”

After months of COVID-19 lockdowns that halted one of the world’s biggest migratory movements in recent years, Venezuelans are once again fleeing their country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.

Although the number of people leaving is smaller than at the height of the Venezuelan exodus, Colombian immigration officials expect 200,000 Venezuelans to enter the country in the coming months, attracted by the prospects of earning higher wages and sending money to Venezuela to feed their families. .

New migrants face significantly more unfavorable conditions than those who fled their homeland before COVID-19. Shelters remain closed, drivers are more reluctant to pick up hitchhikers, and locals who fear contagion are less likely to help with food donations.

“We hardly have an elevator along the way,” said Anahir Montilla, a cook from the Venezuelan state of Guarico who was approaching the Colombian capital after traveling with her family for 27 days.

Before the pandemic, more than 5 million Venezuelans had left their country, according to the United Nations. The poorest left on foot, walking on terrain that is often hot but can also be very cold.

As governments in South America shut down their economies in hopes of stopping the spread of COVID-19, many migrants found themselves out of work. More than 100,000 Venezuelans have returned to their country, where at least they would have a roof over their heads.

Today, official land crossings and bridges to Colombia are still closed, forcing migrants to flee through illegal routes along the porous 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border with Venezuela. The dirt roads are controlled by violent drug trafficking groups and rebel organizations like the National Liberation Army.

“The return of Venezuelan migrants is already happening even if the border is closed,” said Ana Milena Guerrero, head of the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit humanitarian organization that helps migrants.

In addition, many are now forced to walk in their own country for days to reach the border due to gas shortages that have reduced transport between cities.

Hernández said it took him a week to get from his hometown of Los Teques to Colombia.

“I cannot allow my daughter to be born in a place where she might have to go to bed hungry,” he said, while signing up with a humanitarian group that distributed food bags. back with food and hats in cold weather.

Once in Colombia, migrants usually walk along highways or wait to hitchhike. But it also became more difficult.

“It was very difficult,” said Montilla, who was still 321 km from his final destination. “But at least with a job in Colombia, we can afford new shoes and new clothes. We couldn’t do this in Venezuela.

A long stretch of road connecting the border town of Cucuta with Bucaramanga, further inland, previously housed 11 migrant shelters. Most have been ordered to shut down by city governments trying to contain coronavirus infections.

Before the pandemic broke, Douglas Cabeza had transformed a shed next to his home in Pamplona into a shelter that housed up to 200 migrants per night. Now he lends gym mattresses to those who sleep outside, in the hope of giving them some protection from the cold.

“Many needs are not being met,” Cabeza said. “But with little gestures like this we’re trying to do something for them. “

Once migrants arrive at their destination, a new list of concerns sets in. Colombia’s unemployment rate fell from 12% in March to almost 16% in August. Those who cannot afford rent are evicted from their homes. To complicate matters further, more than half of all Venezuelans in Colombia do not have legal status.

Still, for many, the prospect of earning even less than minimum wage is a boost. The monthly minimum wage in Colombia is currently worth around $ 260, far more than Venezuela’s meager $ 2.

Hernández worked as a street vendor in Venezuela, selling cakes made by his wife. But money for food was becoming increasingly scarce, prompting the couple to make the 1,384-kilometer journey to Medellin.

“I am Venezuelan and I love my country,” he said. “But it has become impossible to live there.”

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