COVID-19 measures in Latin America affect Venezuelans twice
Rigorous measures against the corona pandemic in Latin America affect the millions of Venezuelan migrants harder than local populations on the continent. The closure of borders with neighbouring countries also has far-reaching consequences for Venezuelans at home. International action is needed to avoid a worsening humanitarian drama.
Mid-March, the Colombian government declared a state of emergency because of COVID-19, and abruptly closed its borders with Venezuela. In response, local authorities transported undocumented Venezuelans across the country to the border in hundreds of buses.
Since informal businesses dried up and local soup kitchens closed in Cúcuta, the largest border town in Colombia, Venezuelan migrants are facing new difficulties. Thousands of Venezuelans have been allowed to return home, but only after being publicly fumigated with an unknown substance and quarantined in empty schools without proper sanitation.1
Migration crisis and corona measures
The Venezuelan exodus is currently the second largest refugee crisis in the world. Since the economic and social crisis deepened in 2015, an estimated five million Venezuelans have left their country. They mainly migrated because of mindboggling inflation, scarcity of basic goods and services, malnutrition, chronic un(der)employment, rising crime and violent repression.
Of all countries in Latin America, Colombia gives refuge to the biggest share of Venezuelan migrants, approximately 1.8 million. Other migrants have travelled further to Ecuador, Peru or Chili – many of them by foot.
The majority of the Venezuelan migrants finds employment in the informal labour sector as a street vendor of basic goods, as a day labourer in mining areas, in drugs trade or in the prostitution. The swift absorption in the informal labour markets has allowed many of them to rapidly send remittances to family in Venezuela.
However, with the corona pandemic spreading in Latin America, host countries suddenly face their own economic and health crisis for which they have taken radical measures. Peru, Ecuador, Chili and Colombia implemented lockdowns at an early stage. In order to relieve public hospitals and prevent the virus from spreading, the Brazilian government also closed its borders.2
These lockdowns directly affect the Venezuelan migrants. For shoe cleaners or cigarette sellers a day without work means a day without money for food and shelter. The majority of these informal transactions are now put to halt due to nation-wide quarantines.
The Colombian government did make a well-intended plan for Venezuelans to access health services and food
Whereas deprived locals can rely on family and neighbours, the Venezuelans are left on their own. Their social networks – already depending on remittances for their own survival – are far away in Venezuela. They see themselves trapped, threatened by disease, poverty and declining access to public health care.
The Peruvian president recently issued payments to Peru’s poorest families, but the measure does not extend to the undocumented Venezuelans.2 Latin American governments logically focus on their own citizens first.
The Colombian government did make a well-intended plan for Venezuelans to access health services and food, but it could not avoid many of them being evicted from their homes. "We already cover the health and educational expenses of thousands of migrants. We help them with day care, with jobs. I'm sorry, but we cannot pay their rent," says Claudia López, mayor of Bogotá, where 400.000 Venezuelans live.3
Facing unemployment and other consequences of social distancing measures, many Venezuelans have now decided to return home. In some cases, local governments in Colombia provide buses to encourage them to leave. Returnees are sporadically allowed to cross the border, thanks to a humanitarian corridor, though rising political tensions between Colombia and Venezuela may soon end this possibility.
A local journalist reports thousands of stranded Venezuelans in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta: “Children and pregnant women now sleep in the streets, many soup kitchens and shelters for migrants have been closed by the government because of corona.” He thinks lootings are a question of time.4
Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro asked: “If Colombia was so cool, why didn’t they stay there?”
Local aid organisations initiated distribution programs for food, hygiene kits and information about the coronavirus to the migrants. According to UNHCR, 41 shelters recently reopened with a maximum capacity of 50 persons, which is far from enough. “There are just too many in need.”5
“The distribution points are potential sources for contagion too,” says a UNHCR member in Cúcuta. “Venezuelan migrants are now roaming the streets before trash is being collected. We did not see so many of them eating food waste before the quarantine.”6
Border crossings continue
Despite paralysed public transport and closed borders, by mid-April an estimated 6,000 Venezuelan migrants had managed to return to Venezuela, according to UNHCR and media outlets. This small number is expected to increase in the upcoming months. Local authorities have placed posters titled “Welcome home,”7 but Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro asked in return, “If Colombia was so cool, why didn’t they stay there?”8
According to local human rights groups, hundreds of returnees have been disinfected with unknown substances, and quarantined for two weeks in empty schools and government buildings in the border city of San Antonio, without mattresses, running water and sanitation.9 Hundreds of Venezuelans are stuck waiting at the local bus station for buses that will never arrive.
Those who manage to continue their return to Venezuela face discrimination by their own countrymen who fear that the returning migrants are spreading the virus. Some returnees desperately went back to Colombia again, via illegal border crossings, says a Cúcuta journalist.
The strict quarantine measures also affect Venezuelans at home. Normally, every day tens of thousands of them cross the border to pick up remittances at a bank, buy food and medicines, visit a doctor or hospital, or simply to receive a meal in one of the many food kitchens along the border on Colombian side. Previous border closures already tried to stop this increase of Venezuelans, which directly affected living conditions in Venezuela.
The current closure also has far-reaching consequences for the population living in the border regions. “Food prices in Venezuela are skyrocketing, just as the exchange rate for foreign currency. Fuel is simply not for sale anymore, except from the black market where the prices tripled,” says Lorena Arraíz, a journalist in San Antonio.3
People who suffer from COVID-19 symptoms receive death threats or are being displaced
Irregular armed groups have again responded quickly by facilitating illegal border crossing in the so-called trochas (small paths through rivers and jungle to cross the national border) and obliging people to pay a fee. If toll payments are due, locals have witnessed violent retaliations, such as rape.
According to Colombian authorities, in one border province there are already 39 trochas and seven criminal groups in control.10 In response, Colombia has sent 5,000 soldiers in order to control illegal border crossings.11 The current border closure is, however, expected to increase the number of informal border crossings, impeding adequate sanitary measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in both countries.12
More recently, because of fear for incoming authorities to handle COVID-19, criminal groups have started implementing their own measures in the remote areas to protect their profitable illegal business.1 People who suffer from COVID-19 symptoms receive death threats or are being displaced.13
The corona epidemic in Venezuela
According to official data, the number of corona victims in Venezuela itself is among the lowest in Latin America, supposedly due to the rapid response of the Venezuelan government. By early May, only 367 cases and ten deaths were counted. According to President Maduro, hundreds of thousands of people were tested at the time.
On social media, however, Caracas residents claim that these ‘tests’ in fact consisted of badly protected Cuban doctors with a questionnaire going door-to-door asking people if they felt sick. 14 “In the state of Mérida 250 patients with respiratory problems were reported, but because of scarcity of tests, they are left out of the statistics,” says a sociologist in Caracas, who monitors the humanitarian crisis.15
Despite the seemingly low infection rate, experts in the region express deep concern. “We have no face masks, no protection clothes, and there is one room with ventilators, but part of them don’t work and I don’t know if there is sufficient oxygen,” says Dutch doctor Jacobus de Waard, who works at a hospital in the state of Vargas. “As soon as the number of cases increases, I think many will die in the corridor rather than connected to a ventilator.”16 There would be between 85 and 120 ventilators in the entire country.17
The Venezuelan public health system collapsed long before the coronavirus pandemic and is far from being prepared to face a crisis of this size. Millions of Venezuelans are short of running water to wash their hands. Soap has been scarce for years. Many Venezuelans have also not been treated adequately for health issues, like HIV, high blood pressure and diabetes, and for tropical infection diseases, such as malaria.
This makes Venezuelans extra vulnerable for COVID-19. One group that is especially vulnerable are the indigenous people. Given their debilitated immune system, indigenous people are particularly prone to infection by foreign viruses.18
Many Venezuelans consider scarcity and inflation more urgent than the danger of the coronavirus
However, as the number of infections is still low, many Venezuelans consider scarcity and inflation more urgent than the danger of the coronavirus. The lockdown has reportedly worked as an incentive for organised crime too. In some popular areas of Caracas, the lockdown enabled so-called colectivos (paramilitary groups linked to the government) to impose new curfews, increasing the repression and imposing closure times to shops.19 In one of the over-crowded prisons, anti-corona measures led to a major uprising, causing at least 46 deadly victims. The border closure together with new sanctions that prohibits a Russian oil company to export gasoline to Venezuela have led to nation-wide fuel shortages. Whereas long queues for fuel were already common in the border regions, black markets are currently emerging in the capital too. 20Local newspaper TalCual stated that with rising scarcity of gasoline, social distancing is worth a dime in Venezuela.21
The coronavirus crisis rapidly develops in a context of economic and humanitarian crises unseen before in Latin America, further weakening Venezuelans economically and physically. The five million migrants are the most vulnerable amongst them.
The international community has not been sensitive to their needs. “Whereas donors have contributed an average of $5,000 for each Syrian refugee, only $193 has been donated for each Venezuelan in the country,” says Felipe Muñoz, Colombian special advisor on border issues.22 In November 2019, a regional humanitarian plan to fight the crisis was issued, but they have received only 3 percent of the requested resources.7
Now rich countries have to handle their own crises, international solidarity seems hard to find
The coronavirus epidemic makes the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela more visible, but it also hinders aid efforts. Now rich countries have to handle their own crises, international solidarity seems hard to find.
Nevertheless, a solution is more urgent than ever, says UNHCR representative in Colombia Jozef Merkx. “There must be more attention, money and resources for the Venezuelan refugees,” Merkx says, recalling his missions in the Middle East and Africa. “When I was in Iraq, money for refugees poured in with huge quantities.”
There should also be more political support for Colombia. “This country has received 1,8 million Venezuelan refugees and doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves for what it is doing.”23
A complicating factor is the political impasse between President Maduro, firmly backed by the national forces, and self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaidó, who receives international recognition from more than 50 countries, including the United States.
In spite of international efforts to negotiate and calls for reconciliation – especially from the United States – and speculations about secret talks between the government and the opposition in response to the possible impact of a spreading virus24, a rapprochement of both leaders is not likely to happen soon.
In this regard, recent initiatives from the US government, including arrest warrants against Maduro because of supposed drugs trafficking and an up-scaled military presence in the Caribbean, do not come at a good moment for the severe humanitarian crisis that needs a decrease of political tensions.
Many Venezuelans sinisterly compare the arrival of COVID-19 with the seven plagues, announcing the apocalypse for Venezuela, says a Venezuelan sociologist. “The question is not if, but when it all collapses.”25 But as long as the world at large closes its eyes for the worsening humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela, for millions of Venezuelans COVID-19 can only be considered another disaster that plagues daily survival and impedes prospects for safety and well-being in the near future.
- 1. a. b. Telephone interview, UNHCR staff member in Cúcuta, April 16, 2020.
- 2. a. b. Reuters, Coronavirus stokes fear among Venezuelan migrants in Latin America, March 20, 2020.
- 3. a. b. Telephone interview, local journalist Lorena Arraiz in San Antonio, Venezuela, April 16, 2020
- 4. Telephone interview, local journalist Teofilo Jimenez, Cúcuta, Colombia, April 16, 2020
- 5. Telephone interview, UNHCR representative in Colombia, Jozef Merkx, April 18, 2020
- 6. Telephone interview, UNHCR staff member in Cúcuta, April 16, 2020.
- 7. a. b. El País, Desandar el camino en medio de la pandemia: el drama de los venezolanos que regresan por falta de recursos, April 12, 2020.
- 8. Press Conference Nicolas Maduro, April 15, 2020.
- 9. Reuters, Venezuelan migrants quarantined in crowded shelters as they return home, April 7, 2020.
- 10. El Tiempo, ¿Qué está pasando en la frontera con regreso de venezolanos a su país?, April 7, 2020.
- 11. Telephone interview, UNHCR representative in Colombia, Jozef Merkx, April 18, 2020
- 12. AlJazeera, Fear as Colombia closes border with Venezuela over coronavirus, March 14, 2020.
- 13. El Tiempo, Por amenazas, niño que tiene covid-19 en Nariño fue desterrado, April 17, 2020.
- 14. Twitter status.
- 15. Telephone interview, Gerardo Gonzalez in Caracas, April 15, 2020.
- 16. Telephone interview, local doctor Jacobus de Waard, Caracas, Venezuela, April 17, 2020.
- 17. Estimates based on telephone interview, Gerardo Gonzalez in Caracas, April 15, 2020 and International Crisis Group report, April 15, 2020.
- 18. Mining.com, ‘Illegal miners may spread covid-19 among indigenous communities in Venezuela, Brazil – NGOs’, Accessed April 21, 2020.
- 19. El Pitazo, Colectivos imponen toque de queda en el 23 de Enero por el coronavirus, March 23, 2020.
- 20. New York Times, Venezuela’s Maduro, Used to Crises, Faces His Toughest One Yet, April 13, 2020.
- 21. WhatsApp message, Gerardo Gonzalez in Caracas, April 15, 2020.
- 22. Interview Felipe Muñoz, The Hague, October 15 2019.
- 23. Telephone interview, UNHCR representative in Colombia, Jozef Merkx, April 18, 2020.
- 24. Reuters, ‘Exclusive: Venezuela Socialists, opposition leaders begin secret talks amid pandemic – sources’, April 21, 2020.
- 25. Telephone interview, Gerardo Gonzalez in Caracas, April 15, 2020.