PAMPLONA, Colombia – Eleazar Hernández slept on a sidewalk amidst a light drizzle, temperatures approaching freezing and the roar of passing trucks.
The 23-year-old Venezuelan migrant was trying to reach the Colombian city of Medellin with his wife, who was seven months pregnant.
But the couple ran out of money for transportation by the time they reached Pamplona, a small mountain town over 482km from their final destination. Unable to buy a bus ticket, Hernández pinned his hopes of taking a ride in the back of a truck. It was the safest way to cross the Paramo de Berlin, a freezing plateau located at 1
“My wife can barely walk,” said Hernández, who had spent four days sleeping on Pamplona’s sidewalks. “We need transportation to get us out of here.”
After months of COVID-19 blockades that halted one of the world’s largest migratory movements in recent years, Venezuelans are once again fleeing their nation’s economic and humanitarian crisis.
Although the number of people leaving is lower than at the peak of the Venezuelan exodus, Colombian immigration officials expect 200,000 Venezuelans to enter the country in the coming months, enticed by the prospect of earning higher wages and sending money to Venezuela. to feed their families.
New migrants are facing far more adverse conditions than those who fled their homeland before COVID-19. Shelters remain closed, drivers are more reluctant to pick up hitchhikers, and locals who fear contagion are less likely to help with food donations.
“We hardly had any elevators along the way,” said Anahir Montilla, a cook from the Venezuelan state of Guarico who was approaching Colombia’s capital after traveling with her family for 27 days.
Before the pandemic, according to the United Nations, over 5 million Venezuelans had left their country. The poorest remained on foot, crossing a terrain that is often hot but can also be freezing cold.
As governments across South America have shut down their economies in hopes of stopping the spread of COVID-19, many migrants have found themselves unemployed. Over 100,000 Venezuelans have returned to their country, where at least they would have had a roof over their heads.
Today, official land and bridge crossings in Colombia are still closed, forcing migrants to flee via illegal routes along the porous 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border with Venezuela. The dirt roads are controlled by violent drug trafficking groups and rebel organizations such as the National Liberation Army.
“The return of Venezuelan migrants is already happening even though the border is closed,” said Ana Milena Guerrero, an official of the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit humanitarian organization that helps migrants.
Moreover, many are now forced to walk for days in their country to reach the border due to the shortage of gas which has reduced transport between cities.
Hernández said it took him a week to walk from his hometown of Los Teques to Colombia.
“I can’t allow my daughter to be born in a place where she might have to go to bed hungry,” she said, while checking in with a humanitarian group that distributed backpacks with food and cold hats.
Once in Colombia, migrants usually walk along the highways or wait for a ride. But this too has become more difficult.
“It was very tough,” said Montilla, who was still 200 miles from his final destination. “But at least with a job in Colombia, we can afford new shoes and clothes. We couldn’t have done it in Venezuela. “
A long stretch of road connecting the border town of Cucuta to Bucaramanga inland housed 11 migrant shelters. Most have been ordered to close by municipal governments trying to contain coronavirus infections.
Before the pandemic broke out, Douglas Cabeza had transformed a shed near his home in Pamplona into a shelter that housed up to 200 migrants a night. Now he lends gym mats to those who sleep outside, hoping to provide them with protection from the cold.
“There are a lot of needs that aren’t being met,” Cabeza said. “But with little gestures like this, we’re trying to do something for them.”
Once migrants reach their destination, a new list of concerns arises. Colombia’s unemployment rate went from 12% in March to nearly 16% in August. Those who cannot afford to pay their rent are evicted from their homes. To complicate matters further, more than half of all Venezuelans in Colombia have no legal status.
However, for many, the prospect of earning even less than the minimum wage is a boost. Colombia’s minimum monthly wage is currently worth around $ 260, much higher than Venezuela’s paltry $ 2.
Hernández worked as a street vendor in Venezuela, selling cakes baked by his wife. But food money was getting scarcer, which prompted the couple to make the 860-mile (1,384-kilometer) journey to Medellin.
“I’m Venezuelan and I love my country,” he said. “But it became impossible to live there.”
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