Colombia is facing an unprecedented crisis as thousands of people from Venezuela continue to cross the border every day to escape the country’s economic collapse that has brought lack of food, medicine, other basic needs and loss of livelihoods, warns the United Nations’ food agency.
Deborah Hines, a Canadian who heads the World Food Programme’s operations in Colombia, says the mass exodus, one of the largest in Latin American history with no end in sight, has become a regional crisis that affects not only Venezuela and its immediate neighbours but also other countries in the region.
“The reality is it is a human crisis. People enter having left behind all of their basic livelihoods, their ability to earn a living, their ability to access education and health,” said Hines in a telephone interview from Bogota. “And as they make their way into Colombia, they really don’t have a destination in mind, they’re just hoping that they can re-establish their lives.”Listen
Venezuelan migrants are increasingly using Colombia as a corridor to enter Ecuador, Peru and other countries in South America, she said.
Counting on Colombian generosity
According to the United Nations statistics, about 2.3 million Venezuelans now live outside their country of birth. And more than 1.6 million people have left Venezuela since 2015. About one million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia.
About 547,000 have crossed from Colombia to Ecuador just in 2018 and more than 410,000 have settled in Peru.
About 65 per cent of people entering Colombia are Venezuelans, 27 per cent are Colombians returnees who had fled Colombia’s decades-long civil war, and about 7 per cent are mixed families, according to the UN refugee agency.
“Colombians and the government are doing all they can to try to address this challenge,” Hines said. “But the reality is that this is an unprecedented for Colombia. Never in the history of the country have they had so many people entering at such a fast rate.”
The crisis is affecting host families and communities receiving large number of migrants, particularly Indigenous communities which welcome new arrivals but face very difficult living conditions, she said.
A crisis like no other
Unlike her previous experience of working in Africa, there are no refugee camps in Colombia, Hines said.
Some shelters have been set up, some people stay with family members but others simply stay in the streets, in parks, and under bridges, Hines said.
“I think I can say that it is one of the most challenging situations that I’ve seen in my career,” Hines said. “And the situation is not going to end soon. I think we have come to the conclusion that this is a longer term crisis, it is a complex humanitarian crisis.”
UN projections show that by 2020 there will be two million Venezuelans in Colombia, she said.
WFP is providing food assistance to people through soup kitchens, community centres and through shelters, she said. Since the start of the operation, WFP has provided emergency food assistance to some 60,000 migrants from Venezuela in the border departments of Arauca, La Guajira, and Norte de Santander.
WFP urgently needs more than $22 million US to meet the food and nutrition needs of the migrants arriving from Venezuela, agency officials say.