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‘The truth is we had to leave’: Fleeing Venezuela for Colombia

Cucuta, Colombia – Insecurity, instability and violence have forced more 1.5 million Venezuelans to flee the country since 2014, according to conservative government figures. Over half that population have sought refuge in neighboring Colombia.

More than 35,000 people cross the bridge from Venezuela into Colombia every day. Many return daily, but around 4,000 people stay in the border city, Cucuta, or move further into Colombia or to neighboring countries. People sell and buy items at the market near the bridge so they can take money and goods to their families in Venezuela. Simon Bolivar Bridge, Colombia. Iris V. Ebert/IRC

“Colombia is a lifeline for western Venezuela,” said Rafael Velasquez Garcia, the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) head of mission in Colombia. “Every day more than 35,000 Venezuelans cross the Simon Bolivar bridge alone to purchase food and receive vital medical assistance, among other services which are not available in Venezuela. Of that number around 4,000 do not return Venezuela – many of whom are without official documentation or status.”

This number does not include those who cross through the “trochas” or trails that are often controlled by Colombian armed groups and/or organized crime groups, which charge migrants and refugees fees and expose them to the risks of recruitment and robbery.

An assessment of Venezuelans in Cucuta and Villa del Rosario conducted by the International Rescue Committee in March 2018 showed that among respondents who spent the last month in Colombia, their self-reported highest priority need was to find a job (89 percent), followed by food (80 percent), and then shelter (58 percent).

The assessment also found evidence of significant family separation, recruitment of children into gangs and armed groups, sexual violence and exploitation, including transactional sex of Venezuelan women, girls and boys, and due to the lack of education opportunities, more children living and working on the streets.

“Venezuelans who remain in Colombia invariably have few possessions, very little or no money, and no immediate, formal and safe opportunities to earn income,” Garcia said.

“As a result, many work in the informal sectors, increasing their exposure to violence, exploitation and other dangers. Women and children are often the most vulnerable during transit and they face significant protection risks when traveling alone to a new location.”

The IRC noted that the sheer number of Venezuelans remaining in Colombia has meant that needs are far outstripping available services.

*Names changed to protect identity

Luis* gives haircuts for 1,000 Colombian pesos, less than $1 USD, next to the Simon Bolivar Bridge near Cucuta, Colombia, bordering Venezuela. His wife, who is pregnant, is in Venezuela. He said he is earning money to buy diapers in Colombia to bring home. Iris V. Ebert/IRC
Maria* is originally from Peru but lived in Venezuela for 25 years. With no work available in Venezuela, she crosses the border almost daily to come to Colombia to sell coffee and baked goods. With two other women, she cooks meals in the kitchen of a small rented room for people living on the streets in the area. Iris V. Ebert/IRC
Tania* was raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Today she is homeless in Cucuta. She spends her days collecting plastic bottles and other recyclable materials to earn money to buy food. She relies on the money she can raise and the kindness of other Venezuelans and Colombians in Cucuta. “The truth is we had to leave,” she says. “We were threatened – people said that they were going to hurt us.” Iris V. Ebert/IRC
Sofia* and Luis* fled Venezuela with their two sons and baby girl. They both used to work in transportation and are now finding odd jobs including cutting hair to earn enough money to feed their family. Luis suffers from a chronic leg injury and can no longer work. Sofia hopes to one day start a hair salon. Iris V. Ebert/IRC
Carla*, 23, fled Venezuela to Cucuta after suffering sexual violence two years ago. She had to leave her children behind with family. Her family has been torn apart by the crisis; she says her children are hungry and have no access to food or medicine. Iris V. Ebert/IRC
Colombians and Venezuelans wait for food distribution at a local soup kitchen. Approximately 35,000 Venezuelans are crossing into Colombia’s Norte de Santander department, where the border city of Cucuta is located. This region of Colombia has the highest number of Venezuelans in transit. Iris V. Ebert/IRC

Article originally appeared on Today Venezuela and is republished here with permission.