Like many humanitarian crises, often involving the collapse of a nation (or nations), what's currently happening in Venezuela did not begin a few weeks or months ago, when many Americans first heard about it.
Venezuela is plagued by a plummeting economy and corruption scandals, including its long history with drug trafficking. Many argue the country's current troubles, which have displaced millions of Venezuelans, began after the death of beloved former president Hugo Chávez who served from 1999 until his death in 2013. His named successor, Nicolás Maduro, assumed power in 2013 after winning a presidential election, having previously served as Chavez's vice president before his death.
Increase of inflation, the devaluation of Venezuelan currency and chronic goods shortages throughout the late aughts led to citizen unrest manifesting in large protests in early 2014, during which hundreds of thousands of citizens also complained about high crime rates and continued corruption, blaming Maduro's leadership. The price of oil —the heartbeat of Venezuela's economy — plummeted from $100 to $40 a barrel, throwing a wrench into the economy so bad the country could no longer fund various social service programs.
Consider that Venezuela has historically been one the world's largest oil exporters, and as of 2012, comprised 20 percent of the world's oil reserves, and how the world's competition for oil has led to many a political and battleground dispute.
With the country in economic recession by 2014 and having the world's highest inflation rate at over 100 percent by 2015, Maduro declared an economic emergency in 2016. In the years since, neighboring Colombia opened its borders temporarily for Venezuelans to buy food, household and essential health items there. There were hundreds of riots, Maduro's overturning of the Constituent National Assembly, Trump's economic sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA and Venezuelan officials, and Maduro's controversial 2018 re-election, which was disavowed as fraudulent by international leaders from countries including France, Colombia, Argentina and the U.S.
Following this week's announcement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that U.S. diplomatic officials had been instructed to withdraw from the Caracas Embassy, citing Venezuela's "deteriorating situation."
Regardless of who is to blame for Venezuela's condition, the situation overall is undeniably bleak. According to statistics provided by global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps to PAPER, more than three million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, and over one million are now seeking refuge in Colombia.
Reuters reports that the Colombian government anticipates hosting as many as four million Venezuelan refugees by the year 2021. Mercy Corps' Americas regional director, Provash Budden, said the mass exodus from Venezuela is the "deepening of the worst regional humanitarian crisis in the Americas." Budden said that by year's end, the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants "will rival the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis."
"Millions of people are leaving their families behind out of desperation, just on the hope of a shred of opportunity elsewhere," he said. "Many can no longer feed their families or get the medical help they need to survive."
It's estimated thousands of Venezuelans are entering Colombia every day, and according to Marianne Menjivar, Colombia's country director for International Rescue Committee, there are "over 200 illegal crossing points," called trochas, at the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Once Venezuelans reach the trochas, Menjivar said, "You're going to be extorted along the way and you have to pay the criminal gangs who run these crossing points."
PAPER reached out to several nonprofits coordinating emergency humanitarian efforts at the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Below are firsthand accounts from those working on the ground and from those affected most, from expectant Venezuelan mothers of large families to children, who sell chewing gum and cigarettes in the streets to survive. Learn more about what you can do to help, with calls to action linked throughout this story.
Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
Lynn Hector, media and communications manager:
On how people are surviving after fleeing Venezuela:
Many Venezuelans arrive in Colombia with little more than the clothes on their back, after walking for hours on dangerous routes plagued by robberies and violence. By the time they arrive, they have been robbed or extorted of most, if not all, of their money and personal items.
Venezuelans in Colombia tell us they need four things above all else: food and healthcare, legal status and a job. Most Venezuelans arriving today can't get legal work, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Some women have resorted to entering into sex work for survival. We often hear the breaking point for Venezuelans was the lack of health services to care for themselves or a family member.
We've met women who had high blood pressure, uterine cancer, had malnourished kids, were in their third trimester of pregnancy when they crossed over to Colombia — all say that they ended up leaving because they, or a sick family member, just couldn't get the basics necessary to manage their health conditions in Venezuela. When people arrive in Colombia, they often beg until they have enough money to buy coffee, bread, candies or other small items they can sell on the street.
They are lucky if they earn a few dollars a day, which they use to scrape by or to send back to Venezuela. For those who do get informal jobs, they are subject to low pay, long hours and exploitation. Medical professionals in Colombia we've spoken with told us that while people are gaining back weight they lost in Venezuela, their diets are high in calories but low in nutritional quality, and so malnutrition continues to undermine their well-being.
In some areas, there are a few temporary housing options, but there aren't nearly enough beds. Most people sleep on the beach, in parks or in other public areas. If they make enough money through informal jobs or selling goods on the street, they rent hammocks in private yards or spaces on the floor in private homes.
Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
"I want a future. If I wasn't thinking of a better future, I would have stayed in Venezuela. That's the reason why I'm here. I believe there's a better future for us."—Wiliannyz, 22, of Maracaibo, Venezuela
Mercy Corps is providing emergency cash to help Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Colombia purchase food, water, hygiene supplies and other urgently needed items. They are supporting people on the Colombian side of the border, as well as in other areas of Colombia where they already provide assistance to vulnerable Colombians affected by conflict. So far, they've helped more than 10,000 people since launching their Venezuela regional crisis response in Colombia last summer.
Donate to Mercy Corps' efforts here.
International Rescue Committee
Marianne Menjivar, country director of Colombia:
On why women leave Venezuela:
Primarily, the [women we work with] say [they left Venezuela] because they don't have access to food, and even if they work, the money that they make is not sufficient to actually buy them three meals a day. So there's a lack of food, that's the number one reason [they leave]. Then the number two reason is a lack of medication and adequate healthcare. There's nothing available if you need insulin, for example, or if you have respiratory disease or asthma. They walk around and say after visiting 22 pharmacies, then they are able to find what they need.
The third reason women tell us that they leave is insecurity-related violence. With the blackouts that Venezuela has suffered in most areas, even with power being restored, there is a lack of water, because water was made available through pumps that were generated with electricity. Women say that when their kids or even themselves faint, that's immediately a trigger. This situation provokes crisis within families and it can result in gender-based violence. So women decide just one day they've had enough, or if they are suffering at the hands of intimate partner violence, they just literally leave with what they've got on and a change of clothes and their kids. The border is closed right now, so women leaving have to use illegal crossing points.
An humanitarian corridor was established [a few days ago], so if you're pregnant, elderly, or a student in school uniform, they're letting some through the bridges. But other than that, people have to use illegal border crossings. If you're going to use an illegal border crossing, you're going to be extorted along the way and you have to pay the criminal gangs who run these crossing points in order to cross. We have people who have come through the illegal border crossing as recently as today. We were talking to a pregnant woman who didn't know that because she's visibly pregnant, if she crosses the bridge they will let her through for medical attention here. We also spoke yesterday to a woman who didn't have the money to pay at the illegal crossings, so she waded through the river. She's five months pregnant.
Jessica Wanless/International Rescue Committee
Venezuelan Emaivis and her baby Leonal stand outside the bus terminal in Barranquilla.
On family separation:
The rate of family separation that we see in this crisis is five times higher than the rate of family separation that we see in all the other crises that IRC is working around the world, which is 40 countries. Five times higher — that's astronomical. Family separation for Venezuelans has become like a survival strategy. And because there is no family planning inside Venezuela, you see very young women with multiple pregnancies and a large number of children who are unable to bring their whole family out. They usually come out with two kids and leave three kids behind, and it creates all sorts of protection issues: one, for the kids they bring with them, because they're trying to survive and make a living in an informal economy by selling things in the street, and two, mothers often don't have anyone to leave the children with.
So they come with the children here, you see them in the streets at traffic lights, in corners with the mom or the dad, selling chewing gum, selling sweets, selling cigarettes, because they're just trying to make a living. The ones left behind, in the best case scenario, are left with a grandparent or other relative. These children will spend all day in the streets of Venezuela exposed to all sorts of dangers.
On the consequences of no healthcare:
We hear stories because we have a health clinic here, so there are women who tell you about their young babies and young children dying. When you ask how their children died, women will tell you stories of complicated pregnancies and then complicated births, wherein the children are born sick and mothers couldn't get appropriate medical care to treat those complications, and children die as a result. Or, they managed to make it here and the baby's born with some kind of complication, and they don't have access to adequate healthcare in Colombia because the only assistance the Columbian government can offer, even despite its open-door policy, is life-saving treatment. With that in mind, by the time you get to the hospital, a child can become so sick that they do in fact die. There's no regular, preventive healthcare women can access for their children.
Jessica Wanless/International Rescue Committee
Jenny and Anderson sell coffee on the streets of Barranquilla. The husband and wife fled Venezuela two months ago and now live in a room with other Venezuelans in the city.
On why life at the border is not a permanent solution:
The Colombian government has done an amazing job in terms of its open-door policies. This is a government and a country that, unlike others, has not shut down its borders, and it can be a lesson to other countries on how to treat people in search of a better life. That said, this is a middle-income country that's trying to navigate its own issues, including those of violence and internal displacement. So, it's overwhelmed by this crisis. Therefore, things like temporary shelter are very scarce. There are some places for migrants and refugees to go, but not enough — there remains a massive need for shelter and housing. Venezuelans are forced to rent rooms in tenements and in marginal neighborhoods that lack the infrastructure and the security.
They live in horrendous conditions and they're charged a lot for that. Everybody we speak to in our center says they want to go back to Venezuela once it's able to stabilize. Migrants and refugees always dream of going back home, but for the time being they recognize they're not able to and they're trying to make the best of the situation. The people we speak to on a daily basis say what they want while they're here is to have a job; to have stable employment and stand up on their own two feet. Cúcuta, where the IRC is stationed, has Colombia's second highest unemployment rate, so it's an extremely fragile economy. There are not sufficient jobs and employment for Colombians, nevermind Venezuelans.
Jessica Wanless/International Rescue Committee
A Venezuelan family sits in a tent where they have lived for 20 days. The children sleep inside the tent while the adults sleep out in the open.
On how the IRC is helping, and how the international community can help:
We provide postpartum care for six months after women give birth. We provide free family planning services. We provide free treatment for sexually-transmitted infections. We also provide clinical care for sexual abuse survivors. We provide free healthcare for children ages zero to five for acute illnesses, such as respiratory diseases, diarrhea, skin diseases, fevers, coughs, pneumonia, bronchitis, and we also provide vaccinations to prevent future disease. We provide multi-purpose humanitarian cash assistance, which is a small amount of money we provide during a determined number of months to make sure that Venezuelans have access to safe housing, shelter, food, basic medication.
This helps prevents things like dangerous labor practices, or people having transactional sex out of desperation. We also provide child protection services, like case workers one-on-one to children at risk and their families until their rights are restored, and we also provide individual case management support to women survivors of gender-based violence. We also work with Venezuelan teens to help them cope in their transition and integration into their new life here. In terms of help, if displaced Venezuelans migrate to your country, legalize their status there. Give them work permits so they're able to stand on their feet and work and sustain their families and regain dignity. Provide them access to healthcare and education. These are all basic social safety nets. And continue to fight worldwide xenophobia and racism.
The IRC has been working for the past year on the border with Venezuela, in the Colombian city of Cúcuta, to provide families with critical support including health care, antenatal care, psychological support for women, and cash to help people buy basic supplies.
Donate to support the IRC's efforts at this address.
Save the Children
Greg Ramm, vice president of humanitarian response:
On how STC is supporting families:
We are responding to the Venezuelan crisis in La Guajira and Arauca, located along the Colombia-Venezuela border. We are addressing the unique needs of families and children in a number of ways. One way is by operating child-friendly spaces, in which children are protected and can return to play and learning — both of which are critical for kids to have a sense of normalcy in an otherwise scary time. We are also distributing school kits to families who cannot afford basic supplies for their children, and providing teacher trainings that empower educators to support children affected by the crisis and identify signs that a child is at risk of exploitation or abuse.
Additionally, we are providing water filters and hygiene kits with items like soap, washing powder, sanitary towels, dental products and other essentials to keep children clean and healthy. For the most vulnerable families in the border regions, we are providing cash transfers that support the purchase of food and other essentials. We urgently need funds to respond to this crisis and any donation, no matter how small, can have a tremendous impact. A hygiene kit, for example, costs only $30.
Donate to Save the Children's efforts here.
Lead image: Jessica Wanless/International Rescue Committee