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“People are moving around on top of this powder keg”

Venezuelans are flooding into Colombia — and it's starting to feel like a refugee crisis

Venezuelans are flooding into Colombia — and it’s starting to feel like a refugee crisis

CUCUTA, Colombia  —  A half-hour before dawn, the pedestrian bridges that connect the Venezuelan towns of San Antonio and Ureña with the Colombian city of Cúcuta begin to fill with people. The traffic is circular, as it has been for years, with large numbers crossing in both directions — but those headed into Colombia are greater in number.

Venezuelans crossing the border are easily distinguished by their luggage. Many drag rolling suitcases behind them, bulging at the edges; others lug duffel bags and cardboard boxes on their shoulders. Some even have their cats and dogs in pet carriers.

In January, 47,095 Venezuelans entered Colombia, more than double the number from January of last year. Some 21,000 of them crossed into Norte de Santander, the state of which Cúcuta is the capital. Here and at other points along the nearly 1,400-mile border, the situation is beginning to feel like a refugee crisis.

Pedestrian bridges connect the Venezuelan towns of San Antonio and Ureña with the Colombian city of Cúcuta. VICE News Tonight

Marcelo Mirena, a young man in crisp, clean clothing who crossed the bridge with a black suitcase in one hand and a satchel over his shoulder, said he planned to spend at least three weeks in Colombia. If it seemed feasible to find work, he would stay permanently.

“The situation is getting out of hand for us,” Mirena said. “Very few Venezuelans have jobs anymore. We don’t have much of a choice.”

As Venezuela’s economic and social crisis has reached a boiling point in recent weeks, with enormous and increasingly violent protests and President Nicolás Maduro descending further into authoritarianism, migration into Colombia has too begun to reach crisis levels. (In the past two years Maduro has intermittently closed the border with Colombia to prevent people from exchanging currency, importing groceries, or smuggling gasoline and other contraband. The border remains closed to vehicle traffic but has been open to foot traffic since August.)

Oscar Calderón, who co-founded a Jesuit center for refugees in Cúcuta seven years ago primarily to serve Colombians displaced by the country’s decades-long armed conflict, says his organization has had to devote a growing share of resources to desperate Venezuelans.

Pedestrian bridges that connect the Venezuelan towns of San Antonio and Ureña with the Colombian city of Cúcuta are busier than ever. The traffic is circular, as it has been for years, with large numbers crossing in both directions — but those headed into Colombia are greater in number.VICE News Tonight

Colombia’s armed conflict has cooled since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the biggest guerrilla group in the country, signed a peace agreement with the government in November. But there are other guerrilla groups active in Norte de Santander, as well as criminal groups battling for turf left behind by the FARC.

The mixture could prove disastrous. “People are moving around on top of this powder keg,” he said.

Venezuelan children are barred from attending Colombian schools — some schools have even been fined for admitting them — and Calderón worries that a growing class of youth will be vulnerable to recruitment by any of the various armed groups active in the area.

Yet the most acute symptom at the border is the rising number of Venezuelans making the journey for medical care. According to the Venezuelan Health Observatory, 76 percent of the country’s hospitals are experiencing shortages of medicine, and less than 10 percent of its operating theaters, emergency rooms, and intensive care units are fully operational.

Colombia’s hospitals are starting to feel the pressure.

“Venezuelan patients used to be very rare,” said Diego Celis, a pediatrician at the Hospital Universitario Erasmo Meoz in Cúcuta. “Nowadays we see 20, 30 that come in for consultations on any given day.”

Most of those patients have neither money nor insurance. In late March, the hospital declared itself in a state of emergency after its maternity and pediatric wards were operating at double their capacity.

In one of the hospital’s examination rooms, Marbella Gutierrez sat holding one of two twin boys, born weeks earlier. Gutierrez had crossed the border to give birth to them, since she was told Venezuelan maternity wards did not have enough equipment to deliver her babies.

“Any day now, I’ll have to go back, because the rest of my children are in Venezuela,” she said.

Gutierrez had been in Colombia for six weeks, in part because she’s had to bring the twins back to the hospital repeatedly with respiratory problems caused by living on the street and begging for change — a cycle of poverty and ill health keeping her on this side of the border.

A rising number of Venezuelans are making the journey into Colombia for medical care.VICE News Tonight

In late April, during a routine visit to Cúcuta, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the government would be instituting a new form of ID for Venezuelans who cross regularly into Colombian border states. “Any person who doesn’t have this ID or a valid passport will be declared illegal here in our country,” Santos said during the announcement.

It’s not the first time his government has tried to control traffic on the pedestrian bridges, and it likely won’t be the last.  The announcement isn’t expected to have a major effect on the crisis, partly because signing up on a website is all it takes to register for the new ID, and partly because there are many paths to cross the border through the mountains. Calderón, of the Jesuit refugee center, said the government has yet to really acknowledge the situation for what it is.

“To the extent they’re addressing the problem, they’re treating it as a security concern, as we’ve seen happen at many borders around the world,” Calderón said, adding, “when it should really be treated as a crisis of human rights.”

Watch VICE News Tonight on the ground in Cúcuta, Colombia.

This video segment originally aired May 10, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Juanita Ceballos contributed reporting to this story. 

Cover: Drone footage courtesy of VICE News Tonight

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