Millions of Venezuelan Migrants Are Trapped Between COVID and a Hostile Homeland

Since the pandemic hit, many have headed home, but conditions there are prompting them to leave again.
October 19, 2020, 3:38pm
migranra, venezuel, covid
Medical staff assist Venezuelan migrants at a closed school in Colombia, in October 2020. Many of the estimated 1.8 million Venezuelans in Colombia live in overcrowded conditions that make social distancing impossible, conditions that had tens of thousands of migrants returning to Venezuela. Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia -- Jose Manuel Lovera is sleeping rough on the streets of the small town of Huaquillas in Ecuador. He didn’t envision his migration would end like this.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic for Venezuelan migrants in the region has been devastating. Many who left their troubled homeland now feel that they have nowhere to go, and face hostility both at home and abroad.

Lovera,  who decided to return to Venezuela after leaving, soon regretted it.

The 28-year-old Venezuelan crossed into Colombia in January, enthusiastic about starting a new life with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. He got a job at a restaurant in the city of Pasto, near the Ecuadorian border and was making a little money.

Then the pandemic hit.

Colombia’s border with Venezuela was immediately closed in March. Weeks passed and many migrants began to panic when casual jobs started to disappear as Colombia went into lockdown. Lovera lost his job and agreed to take a free bus back to the Venezuelan border -- some Colombian mayors offered, controversially, to transport migrants to the international crossing to clear them from cities, where they were allowed to cross home via a humanitarian corridor.

Once back in Venezuela, Lovera and his family had to spend two weeks at a makeshift quarantine facility in the Venezuelan border town of El Amparo. They slept on the floors of an abandoned high school, with scant food supplies and only basic sanitation.

“There was no water or electricity… the food they gave us wasn’t fit for dogs and we slept on the floor. It was all awful,” Lovera told VICE News.

When the family finally got home to the city of Valencia near the coast of Venezuela, they found things had worsened in the four months they had been gone.

“The situation was critical. We had no money at all to feed our daughter or to support my elderly father-in-law, and there was no work available,” Lovera said.  “In Colombia we sleep on the streets, but at least we eat.”

Lovera felt that they had little option but to return to Colombia. Many like him, faced with discrimination and anti-migrant rhetoric, feel driven away again.

Almost 5.5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees have left their homeland since 2015, according to the United Nations, fleeing a continuing social  and economic crisis that is being exacerbated by COVID. Since the pandemic began, an estimated 70,000 - 100,000 have returned via Colombia, many by foot from as far afield as Ecuador and Peru, unable to make ends meet.

Marianne Menjivar, director of the International Rescue Committee in Colombia and Venezuela, said when returnee migrants get back, their families and neighbors where they have lived their whole lives are blaming them for the spread of COVID.

“The reverse culture shock and the reverse discrimination is more painful, they say, than what they’ve faced abroad,” Menjivar said.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s rhetoric towards the migrants' return has been contradictory. He initially welcomed them, following reports of increased xenophobia in several Latin American countries.

“Here we’ve opened our arms to them,” Maduro tweeted in April. “We are going to keep receiving all Venezuelans with love,” he said in a televised message in June.

But the Venezuelan government has taken a drastic U-turn in recent months. Maduro and other officials have branded returnee migrants “bioterrorists”, sowing discrimination against those arriving home after arduous journeys.

Maduro has since publicly apologized for his comments.

Lovera's experience was not unusual, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, which highlighted the “overcrowded and unsanitary” quarantine centers where “social distancing is impossible.”

CARE, a humanitarian organization, has also been monitoring the situation. It says Venezuelan quarantine camps do not meet the minimum needs of migrants and that Maduro’s new rhetoric aims to “dissuade migrants” from returning.

“They don’t have access to the most basic needs in the camps, so they’ve ended up facing an even worse situation than what they’d been living through in Colombia,” said Catalina Vargas, CARE’s humanitarian manager for Latin America.

When Lovera and his family left home again at the end of May, they did so via the dangerous informal border crossings on the Venezuela / Colombia border.

Menjivar and her teams on the ground have asked returnee migrants attempting to get back to Venezuela why they want to go back, and that many say that if they’re going to die, they’d rather die in their homeland.

Several humanitarian organizations confirmed to VICE News that migration into Colombia from Venezuela is again intensifying, but via the precarious informal border crossings, which are also used by drug traffickers and other organized crime groups.

“These informal border crossings are controlled by groups, who charge people to use them. There are no guarantees for the people’s safety,” Vargas said.

But even these escape routes may soon be blocked.

On October 14, Colombia’s military began efforts to close off the informal crossings in the main border town of Cúcuta in an attempt to curb the number of migrants. They received news of “a large number” of Venezuelans walking from Caracas and planning to cross into Colombia.

The high number of  incoming migrants means levels of xenophobia in and around Cúcuta are “high and on the rise”, says Menjivar.

Lovera made it back to Colombia at the end of May, but things have been hard. The family were forced to live on the streets. In the end, Lovera left for Ecuador to try and earn dollars, while his wife, who he says has since developed a tumor, stayed in Colombia with their child.

“It’s been rough. I’ve had to walk the whole way, begging and living off that. I’ve not been able to find work and I’ve been sleeping on the street,” Lovera said on a phone call from Huaquillas, near the Peruvian border.

“I just want to try and get back to my wife now because she’s sick.”