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Inside the UN's first tent camp for Venezuelans who fled to Colombia

“People will keep coming until Venezuela is left empty.”

by Dylan Baddour
Apr 22 2019, 3:25pm

MAICAO, Colombia — Aldemiro Santo Choles held out for as long as he could. For months, he had hoped it wouldn’t become necessary to open a refugee camp in the small desert city where he serves as city secretary. But early this year, it became clear he had no choice.

Thousands of Venezuelans had fled to Maicao and were now living in its parks and plazas. Streets stank or urine and diseases were spreading, and as city secretary, he was charged with keeping order and tidiness in public places. In January, after Choles enlisted the federal government's help, the U.N. refugee agency began setting up its tents.

“We never thought the situation would collapse so much.”

The $1.7 million facility opened March 8 with 60 family-sized tents and a lengthy waiting list. Across the border, Venezuela plunged into a catastrophic blackout, which would last one week and affect over 80 percent of the country, sending desperate Venezuelans to urban drainage ditches for drinking water. Multi-day blackouts have become common occurrences since, driving more people across the border into Colombia.

“There’s a bigger flow of people, thanks to the loss of electricity and water,” said Choles from his office in Maicao’s city hall. “We never thought the situation would collapse so much.”

“My fear is that things will get worse,” said Jozef Merkx, head of the UNHCR in Colombia, who previously worked with the agency in Iraq. “We are not really prepared. We are trying to get more money, but it is not easy.”

A grim sign

This small camp in Maicao — housing just 350 Venezuelans for up to six weeks at a time — stands in the barren desert as a grim signal of what’s ahead.

Officials hope to quadruple its size but haven’t found the funds. Other Colombian border cities have asked for similar installations, but agencies are struggling to maintain the few emergency facilities they have.

The blackouts in March represented a dramatic decline for Venezuelans already accustomed to poor conditions. Though intermittent power loss had long been normal, the extended nationwide failure was a crippling blow to an already withered economy.

A UNHCR refugee camp on the Colombian border
Orlando Arbelo and his wife, Marilu Palacio, hide from the desert sun in their family-sized tent. They’ll only spend six weeks here before another Venezuelan family eagerly fills their place. (Dylan Baddour for VICE News)

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro made his government’s first subtle admission of a humanitarian crisis this week when he allowed the Red Cross to begin a large scale medical relief campaign in the country. He had previously blocked humanitarian aid efforts, denying his country was in crisis and calling aid a pretext for military intervention.

The U.N. estimates more than 3.4 million people have left Venezuela in the last three years, with more than 1.2 million settled in Colombia. Merkx at the UNHCR said he expects those figures to hit 5 million and two million, respectively, in 2019.

Yet no one knows exactly how many Venezuelans are currently on the move. Most official border crossings have remained closed by Venezuelan authorities since a showdown in February between Maduro and US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido. With the crossings closed, Colombia has lost track of the numbers of people coming over the border.

Read: This is why Venezuela’s Maduro is still in power

Before the closure, Colombia estimated that about 5,000 Venezuelans entered the country each day to either settle or migrate through. Many come with bus tickets for faraway cities but many others show up penniless, preferring to sleep in the streets of Colombian border cities or to hike 1,000 miles than to go hungry in Venezuela.

'IT WILL BE CHAOS'

With Maduro and Guaido locked in political stalemate, and no political solution in sight, Choles and other officials worry that the strain on their already-limited resources will only worsen.

“I think more people will come. I think this is only beginning.”

“People will keep coming until Venezuela is left empty,” said Liset Dinares, a 38-year-old Venezuelan mother who crossed the border in early December with her 13-year-old son Luis. “It will be chaos, like terrorism everywhere. It could become a war.”

Like most other migrants, she doesn’t have a passport. She and Luis paid in bread to ride six hours in a truck carrying scrap iron down a dirt road through the desert, past unknown men with guns and into Colombia.

They settled alongside thousands of other migrants on the streets of Maicao, an impoverished and arid region near the Caribbean coast.

Life on the street was better than in Venezuela, Liset said, but it was tough. She sold candies and begged, gathering enough money each day to feed herself and Luis. Still, she had to wait until the streets had cleared late at night to use the bathroom somewhere, and she stayed awake many nights, holding Luis and listening, afraid, to every person that walked past. She cried a lot in the first days.

A UNHCR refugee camp on the Colombian border
Liset Dinares and her 13-year-old son Luis slept in the streets of Maicao before the UNHCR gave them a tent for six weeks. (Dylan Baddour for VICE News)

“Every day it gets worse.”

Stories like Liset's now number in the thousands, and were the inspiration behind the government of Maicao's decision to seek help from the United Nations. The U.H. High Commission on Refugees graded ten acres of city-owned land, and raised a chain link fence. It poured concrete sidewalks, set up tents, and built bathrooms, a kitchen and a small concrete building for children. The facility purifies its own water supply and generates its own power.

“It’s not a refugee camp,” said Felipe Muñoz, Colombia’s manager of border issues, who was appointed last year amid the burgeoning crisis. “It’s a center for temporary attention.”

Families are allowed to stay in the center for about six weeks to get on their feet, save some money and make some plans.

“We don’t have the capacity to set up a traditional camp where people enter with no date to leave,” said Federico Sersale, the head of UNHCR’s office for La Guajira region.

He said the idea is for Venezuelan families to use their time to find employment, though he acknowledged that was “a little unrealistic” in an already impoverished region now inundated with migrants.

Otherwise, the migrants are on their own.

For Liliana Mendez, a 21-year-old from Trujillo, Venezuela, that means returning to the public plaza where she was sleeping before the camp opened.

“One comes with the hope to find work and send money home to the family, but there isn’t any work to be found for Venezuelans,” she said recently on the last of her 56 days in the UN camp. “Every day it gets worse.”

Other than getting people off the streets of Maicao, the center also serves for contingency plans, Sersale said. If one thousand people turn up together at the border, the new facility is the only place authorities could house a crowd of that size.

No one knows if that will happen, but Colombian authorities fear the worst as Venezuela continues its collapse with little hope for peaceful change.

“I think more people will come,” Sersale said. “I think this is only beginning.”

Cover: A young girl draws water from a spigot at a new tent camp in Maicao, Colombia providing temporary housing to Venezuelan migrants. (Dylan Baddour for VICE News).