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Laura Cristina Dib/WOLA

8 Jun 2023 | News

‘Heading to Venezuela Loaded With Groceries on Their Backs’: A Feature from the Border With Colombia

In this personal feature, Laura Cristina Dib, Director for Venezuela, recounts her impressions after returning to Colombia’s border with Venezuela for the first time since 2019. Her visit at the end of May to the cities of Villa del Rosario and Cúcuta (Colombia) and San Cristóbal (Venezuela) offers a glimpse into the relations of two countries, whose common border opened in September 2022 for the first time in seven years. Dib found that migrants and refugees were facing the same humanitarian needs as in previous years but discovered that migration patterns seemed to be changing.

On my way to La Parada, Villa del Rosario, I was struck by how much the scene had changed since the last time I was there, in October 2019. Fewer migrants, fewer street vendors, fewer humanitarian workers. We keep walking until we get to the Simón Bolivar Bridge. The first thing I notice is a D1 shop, a low-cost store in Colombia, as people exit carrying bags of merchandise  on their backs or, in some cases, loading them into cars that are rented by the seat. They are heading to Venezuela loaded with groceries on their backs. These products are available there but at exorbitant prices that the vast majority of people cannot afford.  

We keep walking. I am approached by one man and then another: “Taxi cab to San Cristóbal, taxi to Rubio!” Some women selling food, shopping bags and even clothes also greet me, looking to secure the last sales of the day. On the side of the street, among garbage and dust from the unpaved areas, I notice some bars and buildings in very precarious conditions known as “pagadiarios”, where people pay to have a place to spend the night,  albeit often shared with strangers. As I keep walking, I remember everything I documented during my years in Colombia about the sexual exploitation of women and girls, as well as victims of trafficking. A shiver runs through my spine as I walk past these buildings, aware of the violence that goes on inside. 

The bridge that used to be crowded with migrants walking and had a post for Colombian migration authorities is now busy with cars and motorcycles with Colombian and Venezuelan license plates that drive past us. Under the bridge: piles of garbage. The white fences that were used by Colombian migration authorities to organize the lines of people entering the country are now huddled together accumulating rust to one side of the bridge. 

On the same side of the bridge, there is also an empty parking lot where the Simón Bolivar Support Space used to operate, which was composed of containers that several international aid agencies used as their base. This is where people could get water, information on how to find shelter, first aid and psychosocial assistance, among many other services. 

Today there are no humanitarian workers left to guide people arriving at this border point. But there is Oswaldo, a “trochero” from Caracas who has been working here for six years and whose job is to carry people’s luggage, guiding them through unauthorized border points, such as Las Pampas and La Platanera. Both those crossings are notorious for the National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal groups such as the Tren de Aragua, who traffic migrant women and girls for sexual exploitation, among other activities.

Oswaldo tells us how, since the opening of the bridge, his work has decreased considerably. He went from making between 10 and 20 trips in a day to making just one for only US$3. Even so, he says he would not return to Venezuela, “To what?” he snaps. “Back to the same thing?” 

But the landscape I describe and that others have documented contrasts with the interviews I did in both Cúcuta and San Cristóbal on this same trip, which indicate that people are continuing to leave Venezuela. It does not match the numbers provided by assistance centers for migrants and refugees, such as the Project Center of Hope located near the border with Ureña, which tells us that in April alone it assisted 2,463 people. It does not match the numbers of Venezuelans crossing the Darién jungle and those arriving at the border between Mexico and the United States. It conflicts with my own common sense.

It is important to mention that Cúcuta and Villa del Rosario only represent a fragment of a border that exceeds 2,000 kilometers. While it is not the only border crossing for migrants and refugees, it is still one of the main places of transit and commercial exchange. What is happening in Venezuela? What can explain this change of scene? If the bridges are now so empty compared to previous years, could it be that those fleeing Venezuela are doing so through more inhospitable routes? 

The complex humanitarian emergency is still ongoing. According to the HumVenezuela platform, almost 19 million Venezuelans have humanitarian needs. This represents 65% of the population. According to the Center for Documentation and Social Analysis of the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers (Cendas-FVM), the basic food basket in April 2023 was $US526, when the minimum wage barely exceeds $5. In other words, approximately 100 minimum wages are needed to cover basic expenses. Adding an inflation rate of 86.7% in the first four months of 2023 makes the economic situation very difficult for those living in Venezuela and for those who must send more and more remittances to support their relatives from abroad.

The renewal of relations between Colombia and Venezuela has modified to some extent the dynamics of mobility and trade on the border, but the reasons that have given rise to migration from Venezuela persist. The needs of migrants and refugees in Colombia also remain unchanged. Oswaldo told us “I need a RUMV, a PEP, something to represent me here in Colombia”, alluding to his need for regular migratory status in order to access a formal job and his rights in the country. But there are doubts as to whether Colombia has the political will to keep regularizing the migratory situation of Venezuelans.

While crossing the Simón Bolivar Bridge, an elderly woman takes great pains to push a wheelchair with a very old man in it. They were trying to make their way between motorcycles and cars as the road was not wide enough for the wheelchair. This scene speaks for itself. The most vulnerable groups (the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant and lactating women, among others) continue to enter Colombia in search of healthcare and other needs that cannot be met in Venezuela. 

Without updated official data, it is difficult to know how the flow of Venezuelans to their neighboring country has changed. The latest data published by the Colombian immigration authorities is from February 2022. But what is clear is that, even if some dynamics have changed with the reopening of the border, the humanitarian needs of the population coming from Venezuela remain critical. Without a democratic transition and a peaceful solution to the situation, people will continue to migrate in extremely vulnerable conditions.

This text was translated from Spanish by WOLA.