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"Every day it gets worse"

Thousands flee Venezuela's economic collapse, overwhelming Colombia’s borders

by Dylan Baddour
Jan 8 2018, 2:51pm

TIBÚ, Colombia — Fradetsi Cedenllo sleeps on the concrete floor of a public sports complex beside hundreds of other migrants who have fled their homeland of Venezuela. By day, they pack the sidewalks of this small tropical town in northeast Colombia, peddling whatever they can for money to eat. By night, they sleep in the open, overwhelming the local community’s public spaces.

Every day, more arrive.

“We came here, more than anything, because we need food,” said Cedenllo, 29, choking back tears. “It is very sad because I never imagined I would leave my country.”

Cedenllo is among hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the spiraling economic collapse that is leaving basic food and medicine increasingly out of reach for much of Venezuela's population. Any hope of change in the faltering country has all but faded as the government of President Nicolás Maduro continues to tighten its authoritarian grip, leaving many Venezuelans with little choice but to leave, or risk facing worse conditions in the months to come.

The crisis can be felt across Colombia’s border, where authorities lament the lack of support in dealing with the tide of migrants that has steadily increased to crisis levels over the last year. In the past three months, the pace of migration has dramatically grown, local authorities say.

People stream across the Simón Bolívar international bridge that connects Colombia and Venezuela. More than 60,000 people on average cross into Colombia each day, and about 54,000 return to Venezuela. Dylan Baddour for Vice News

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called Venezuela his “worst nightmare” during a late-November visit to London. But he’s remained focused primarily on his Nobel Peace Prize-winning efforts to end Colombia’s 50-year civil war, and has largely allowed the crisis on his borders to develop without a clear national response.

Soon, local experts said, the throngs of Venezuelans looking for work will grow too disruptive to local economies for Bogotá not to step in.

“Eventually the government must do something,” said Father Francisco Bortignon, director of the Center for Migration, a migrant safehouse near the Venezuelan border, where, he said, “every day 20 [Venezuelans] leave, and 25 enter.”

The monthly flow of documented migrants — those who get their passports stamped — over this part of the Colombian border more than doubled between June and November, from 47,071 to 95,826, respectively. But those numbers show a small part of the picture. Also in November, more than 200,000 people crossed into Colombia with special border transit ID cards, but never left.

Since August, more than 600,000 people have entered Colombia with such ID cards, driven, they say, by the accelerating pace of hyperinflation making food inaccessible at home.

Still, the official numbers are likely on the low side. In Tibú, for example, virtually all of the migrants simply walked across the nearby open border and are almost impossible to tally.

“In Tibú we have 50,000 inhabitants,” said Tibú Mayor Jesus Alberto Escalante. “But if we’re not careful, the vast majority will be Venezuelan within six months.”

In midsummer, Escalante allowed the migrants to sleep around the Tibú city hall, but by September new arrivals had begun overcrowding. Desperate to keep the crisis under control, Escalante moved the migrants to the sports complex.

But even that hasn’t been enough to weather the influx. Now, he says, he has no choice but to crack down.

Black market money changers on the border trade piles of Venezuelan cash for small stacks of Colombian bills.Venezuelans are escaping a financial crisis and overwhelming Colombia’s borders

Local businesses are complaining. The Venezuelans arrive with backpacks full of foods and random items to sell, undercutting tax-paying merchants. Escalante intends to ban the unlicensed commerce in the streets, which activists say will simply send the migrants farther into the country, into illicit economies like coca harvest or prostitution, or into the ranks of armed groups that still operate nearby.

But Escalante says Tibú lacks the resources to address the crisis. Despite receiving some commitments of help from U.N. personnel, who’ve offered to install showers at the sports complex and who hope to open a space for migrants with the Catholic Diocese of Tibú, signs of outside assistance have been limited.

“We don’t see any systematic or appropriate response on behalf of the national government,” said Father Victor Hugo of the Diocese of Tibú. “Colombia doesn’t have the necessary tools, not economically, even less politically, to be able to respond to this.”

“Every day it gets worse”

Migration on the Colombia-Venezuela border is nothing new. More than a decade ago, much of Venezuela's upper class fled the self-styled socialist revolution of late President Hugo Chavez. But many Venezuelans arriving in Colombia today lack the resources of their predecessors.

“Every day it gets worse,” said Abraham Iriza, 23, who used to sell bananas and pastries on the streets of Caracas and now sells cookies in Tibú. “Here I can make in a day what there I make in a month.”

Like many other Venezuelans seeking refuge in Colombia, Iriza, his wife, and his three children had been increasingly relying on Venezuelan government food rations before journeying to Colombia. But his family ate the monthly supply in a week. People at home are starving, he said, and conditions will only worsen.

Abraham Iriza with his wife and child

Venezuela is headed “over a cliff,” said Phil Gunson, senior regional analyst for the International Crisis Group in Caracas.

“The only way of surviving will be to cross the border for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people,” he said.

Venezuelans in Colombia say that reality has become increasingly clear in recent months as any spectre of salvation has faded. Massive protests last fall ended with a violent government crackdown, and countrywide mayoral elections in December saw members of Maduro’s ruling party sweep nearly every open seat.

“The crisis in Venezuela will end when Maduro is left there all alone,” said Jean Carlos, 35, a Venezuelan looking for work in Colombia.

In this regard, Tibú is hardly unique. In preparation for a mass migration, Brazil has reportedly sent an army general to Lebanon to study the construction and administration of refugee camps. And across Colombia’s border region, local governments are preparing to bear the brunt of the migration.

The Colombian government will have the primary responsibility of providing documentation, health services, education, and in some cases shelter to the migrant influx, said Jozef Merkx, head of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees in Colombia.

“No future in Venezuela”

Nowhere is the scale of the migration more apparent than on the Simón Bolívar international bridge in Cúcuta, the most trafficked link between Colombia and Venezuela, about 80 miles south of Tibú.

More than 60,000 people on average per day crossed the bridge in November, the majority of them Venezuelans coming to work or shop in Colombia for basic food ideas that are prohibitively expensive at home, then return. But more than 6,600 people each day enter Colombia and don’t leave.

Hundreds of Venezuelans queue each morning outside a Western Union in Cúcuta to receive money from family and friends abroad. A security guards lets in only 200 per day.

Jacqueline Garere, 41, works with a tour company that since 2016 has brought two weekly busloads of Venezuelans over the Colombian border to shop then return home. But in the last three months, she said, most have come to immigrate elsewhere, with passports or without. They move on to Ecuador, Peru, or Chile.

Garere is saving money to move her sons, ages 21 and 23, outside of the country, before they fall victim, she fears, to the rising rate of violence that has given Caracas the world’s highest murder rate.

“There is no future in Venezuela,” she said.

Hundreds of people, with nowhere else to go, sleep each night around the Colombian migration office. Along the road leading from the bridge, Venezuelans bring bags or suitcases full of bundled cash to black-market money changers who exchange the collapsing currency for a small handful of Colombian bills.

“Even if they come with resources, their resources are worthless here,” said Bortignon of the Migration Center in Cúcuta.

The public plazas of Cúcuta now fill each night with sleeping Venezuelans, he said. The more that arrive, the harder it becomes for them to earn money to eat, or to pay their passage to another part of the country or beyond.

“I suspect that the United States and Europe are not going to be able to stay out of this,” he said.

Dylan Baddour is a freelance journalist based in Colombia.