Venezuelan migrants
Photo: Lia Valero

Hundreds of Venezuelans Are in Migration Purgatory Because of Coronavirus

Stuck in improvised camps, Venezuelans looking to leave Colombia first travel miles on foot or by bus, only to find themselves quarantined in inhumane conditions across the border.
July 22, 2020, 11:40am

Nearly two months have gone by since the first night that hundreds of Venezuelan migrants—facing cold temperatures and burdened by suitcases, but lacking blankets and even face masks—found themselves forced to set up camp in a field near Bogota’s Terminal Del Norte bus station. Many of them were women with children or in advanced stages of pregnancy.

The improvised homes they built—using plastic bags, sticks, and scraps of wood—became the only shelter available to more than 500 people hoping to return to their country in the midst of a pandemic that, according to Colombian migration authorities, has seen more than 81,000 Venezuelan migrants return home.

Some have since been able to buy tickets to the border city of Cucuta, for 180,000 Colombian pesos—or $50—per person. And on June 2, close to 150 people managed to travel in buses arranged by Bogota’s municipal government. Others, having grown increasingly desperate, decided to continue their journey on foot.

Bercris, 30, arrived at the camp with her partner and their few possessions during the quarantine and quickly became one of the leaders".Unable to find work, she’d been evicted from her residence in Engativá—a district in the capital’s northwest—for failing to pay her rent. “I got tired of handing out resumes and wasn’t lucky enough to have a stable job. First, I looked after children, and later I worked for a candy dispenser company,” Bercris, a Caracas-native with a political science degree and six completed semesters of law school, told VICE several weeks ago.

At the beginning of May, she was told that to buy her ticket she had to register on the station’s website and then wait for a call or email with a departure date. She never heard back. And when she went with cash to the ticket window, she was informed that no buses were leaving, because the border had been closed due to an extension of the nationwide quarantine. Without permission to cross the border, without a home and without work, she had no choice but to remain in the camp.

She made lists of the migrants arriving at the camp each day in a similar situation, and for whom starting back home on foot wasn’t an option. She voluntarily organized more than 300 people. “We slept two hours so we could keep watch. And early in the morning, we’d arrange the donations from various organizations, foundations, and citizens to divide up and hand out breakfast and lunch,” she explained.

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Although there are no bathrooms or showers at the camp, women look for ways to care for themselves. Braiding their hair, painting their nails, and applying make-up are a part of daily life. Photo: Lia Valero

On June 8, after weeks of eating poorly and sleeping little, with nowhere to take a bath or a shower and living amid rain, mosquitos, rodents, and snakes, she finally managed to buy two seats. “The hardest tickets I’ve ever got in my life. I’m going to have them framed,” she said through tears.

Children with Colombian citizenship, but with Venezuelan mothers, also came to the improvised shelter. Denisse Castillo arrived with Santiago, her six-month-old son, after sleeping in the street for a week. The two had been evicted from an apartment in the district of Suba, where a friend had secretly been hosting them.

In March, Denisse began her exodus from Quito, Ecuador. She travelled with a group on foot and hitched rides with sympathetic truck drivers. At the beginning of the year, she’d moved to Quito in search of work, but with few options she had to return with the $80 she’d managed to get from begging.

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Denisse, born in the seaside city of Piritu in the Venezuealan state of Anzoátegui, stays in a tent that barely keeps out the rain: “I didn’t leave Venezuela to betray my country but to give my son a better life, because the government is guilty of betraying the country. I’m only looking out for him—he’s Colombian—even if it’s only to feed him.” Photo: Lia Valero

Although Santiago is a Colombian citizen and Denisse has _Permiso Especial de Permanencia_—a document certifying her right to be in Colombia—the two have spent weeks in a state of total vulnerability. Faced with the challenge of returning with three suitcases to a country undergoing the most complex economic and social crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and with neither money nor relatives to help them make the trip, Denisse decided to go to a public boarding house. She’s only allowed to stay for eight days while she looks for a secure place to live. As a migrant and a single mother, going back to Venezuela has become the most complicated option available. Now, she only wants to find a way to get by in Bogota and to take care of her baby.

Many Venezuelan women face the difficult task of having to navigate the migration process without the support and assistance of spouses or their children’s fathers. After the sudden disappearance of Santiago’s father, Denisse decided to have surgery to avoid having any more children.

The case of Marianny Morales, a Venezuelan woman from the state of Barinas, is also difficult. On July 2, hours before boarding a bus to Cucuta—and after having spent three precarious weeks sleeping on mats—she was given a final check-up at the station.

“Has your baby been traveling?” the doctor on duty asked her, unaware that before arriving in Bogota a pregnant Marianny had walked more than 60 miles a day and hitchhiked from Lima, where she’d lived for a year. On the long journey, she slept wherever she happened to be at nightfall and survived on food given to her by others. “There was a point when I wanted to throw in the towel. There were so many difficult things to see in the street. Once we saw a truck run over a group of Venezuelans, and I was terrified. But then I said to myself that I had to be brave, because I was going to give birth with the help of my family,” she said.

When her husband died at the beginning of her pregnancy, Marianny had to confront a new life. She’s now six months pregnant, with twins: Mia Victoria and Gael Josué, as she plans to name them. “When I had the ultrasound, I cried a lot. I hadn’t imagined myself having two little babies. But I feel lucky and blessed, because in the end God gave me the privilege of being both mother and father,” she says, with a tone of optimism that seems unthinkable amid so much uncertainty.

On July 2, she began another journey—16 hours to Cucuta and the border, in buses provided by the city. The travelers had almost no food, the bathroom was locked, and they didn’t make a single stop.

What are conditions like for Venezuelans when they do get across the border? Andrés Idárraga, who heads the human rights office for Bogota’s city council, says he hasn’t the faintest idea and that his office relies on Colombian migration authorities to decide which border city Venezuelans returning home should go to. “Migration authorities can tell us: tomorrow 10 people will go to Cucuta, and 90 to Arauca. We just do as we’re told, depending on the space they give us for the crossing.”

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Because of doctors who voluntarily came to the camp, Marianny was provided with an ambulance to Hospital Simon Bolivar for her first sonograph and a prenatal check-up. Photo: Lia Valero

Hundreds of migrants arrive each day to a makeshift camp in Cucuta, where they’re crowded together without potable water or access to health care. In a large patch of sand, they wait days to be given a bracelet with a color and number assigning them their return ticket to Venezuela. In many cases, they sell the few possessions they have and use the money to cross illegally. If they succeed and aren’t prosecuted, they’re put into a quarantine of unknown duration in San Antonio de Táchira, on the Venezuelan side of the border.

This is the limbo in which various migrants—who weeks earlier were staying at the camp in front of the bus station in Bogota before managing to find a bus to Arauca in eastern Colombia—now find themselves. Having been unable to get tested for COVID-19 before their trip, they’re isolated in the town of Guasdualito, in the Venezuelan state of Apure, in impoverished, unsanitary conditions.

Several sources, who we’ve kept anonymous for security reasons, say that people arriving in Venezuela are forced to stay in schools without drinking water, with little food, and in conditions that facilitate the spread of the virus. Several people who’ve had blood and nasal-based COVID-19 tests have been confirmed as positive. And in an effort to fight the virus, they’re given chloroquine, a medication normally used for patients with malaria and whose effectiveness in treating the novel coronavirus still lacks conclusive evidence.

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Migrants ride in buses like this to the Cucuta or Arauca with minimal health precautions. The only bathroom on board is locked throughout the trip, which takes more than 15 hours. Photo: Lia Valero

As if the journey to the camp in Bogota and the harsh living conditions there weren’t enough, migrants trying to cross the border face hunger, a heightened risk of infection, and, in Guasdualito, a form of isolation that’s not unlike imprisonment. They’re fed rice, arepas, or bread; they live without money and with no water to drink or bathe, and they don’t have the option of distancing themselves from others.

This is the fate of those who manage to cross, all while border restrictions only allow 300 people to enter each day. On the Colombian side, those hoping to leave are only embarking on another leg of their arduous journey. And this time, they have to endure the journey itself and the pandemic, and the chaos of migration in which only the strongest survive.

Correction 07/23/2020: This story was updated to correct a translation error from Spanish to English.