Colombia’s rapprochement with Venezuela fuelled hopes among Venezuelan migrants for new job opportunities, better healthcare, and safe passage crossing the border. Some even dreamt of returning home, expecting the humanitarian situation to improve.
“The reopening; we haven’t felt it here,” said Sonia Pimiento, 48, social leader of the Alfonso Gómez settlement near the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. It is home to some 90 families, many of them struggling to find work, stay healthy, and feed themselves.
“People do their best to get lunch on the table, but sometimes we don't eat. We’ve been abandoned for a while now,” said Pimiento, a Colombian national who works with NGOs and aid organisations that come to the settlement. “But now I ask for help, and they tell me there are no resources.”
Before the pandemic, these Venezuelan migrants and low-income Colombians relied on humanitarian organisations for food, water filters, mosquito nets, and debit cards to pay for necessities. They say aid is slow to arrive these days, and is mostly limited to legal assistance for undocumented migrants and help accessing healthcare.
Soon after taking office in August, Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro resumed ties with Venezuela and its leader, Nicolás Maduro. Diplomatic relations between the two countries broke off in 2019, and the border was repeatedly closed over a seven-year period. It reopened to all vehicles in January and a trade agreement was revived that aims to boost commercial exchanges and bring them closer to the 2008 peak of some $7.2 billion.
Petro also engineered a ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN) — the country’s largest remaining guerrilla group — with the help of Maduro, who hosted the first of three negotiation sessions in Caracas at the end of last year. The agreement, reached last week after talks in Havana, goes into effect on 3 August and is supposed to last six months. It is a step forward in Petro’s campaign for “Total Peace” following a series of setbacks.
However, a report by InSight Crime published this week says armed groups like the ELN are obstructing humanitarian organisations’ access particularly in Guaviare, Nariño, and Norte de Santander, the northeast border state where Cúcuta is located. The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, reported a 133% increase in restrictions on humanitarian assistance in Colombia between January and April 2023 compared to last year, possibly to cover up human rights violations that could jeopardise the peace negotiations with Petro’s government.
The global decrease in humanitarian aid – linked to the pandemic-related economic slowdown and the impact of the war in Ukraine – has meant less money for crises around the globe. Ultimately, this has affected conditions in neglected places like Cúcuta.
But experts say politics has also played a role. Eager to re-establish ties with Venezuela, where Maduro’s help is key to his peace plan, they say Petro downplayed the magnitude of the humanitarian issues Venezuela’s migrants face.
“Unfortunately, part of these bilateral ties are based on the Colombian government's idea that things are back to normal in Venezuela,” said Gaby Arellano, from Fundación Juntos Se Puede, an NGO working to integrate Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. “There still is a complex humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.”
A dismal outlook, while aid efforts wane
According to the Financial Tracking Service, a centralised data source on humanitarian funding managed by OCHA, Venezuela received nearly $356 million in humanitarian aid in 2021. By 2022, that number had dropped to a little more than $310 million. Colombia also registered a 6% decrease between 2021 and 2022; and almost halfway through 2023, Venezuela has been allocated only 11% of the $719.6 million requested to meet the needs of the UN’s response plan. A Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan, aimed at helping Venezuelan migrants in 17 Latin American and Caribbean host countries, has only received about 8% of the $1.72 billion in the funding it needs for this year.
Many of those living in camps like the Alfonso Gómez settlement, which consists of shabby houses made of tin, wood, or bricks among the trees on a hillside, feel left behind.
“We do what we can here,” said Pimiento, who has lived in the settlement for six years and helps community members resolve all sorts of issues — from not being able to read legal documents or helping with a sick child, to mediating a dispute between residents.
Some 7.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, according to R4V, a platform led by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and its migration body, IOM. More than a third of them are now living in Colombia.
Despite Maduro’s claims that Venezuela's economic and humanitarian crisis is over, organisations say the situation is still dire.
“Migration is almost absent from the government’s National Development Plan.”
Venezuela’s gross domestic product declined by 75% between 2013 and 2021, and hyperinflation has run rampant. Civil society has collapsed, and healthcare and food are in short supply.
According to HumVenezuela, which documents the crisis in Venezuela, just over 90% of the Venezuelan population had deficiencies in access to water as of March 2022, up from 82% in 2020; nearly 43% suffered moderate or severe food insecurity versus 32% in 2020; and more than 75% lived in extreme poverty.
Meanwhile, several support programmes for migrants at the border have closed. Conectando Caminos por los Derechos, a joint initiative of over 50 social organisations facilitating the transition from humanitarian emergency aid to integration of migrants, was abruptly shut down a year earlier than planned. The closure included the care point they ran at the border, which assisted about 2,000 migrants monthly.
A programme providing health services and legal help to Venezuelan migrants and refugees – run by the Interagency Group for Mixed Migration Flows (GIFMM), and created by the IOM and UNHCR – was also discontinued.
Txomin Las Heras Leizaola, a researcher at the Observatory of Venezuela at the University of Rosario, says this is happening “to give the feeling of normality”.
“If you have humanitarian assistance points at the border, it gives the impression that there is a crisis situation,” he told The New Humanitarian. “If you eliminate them, at least you cover that up a little."
Leizaola points out that despite renewed diplomatic ties and the reopening of the Cúcuta consulate, consular services are still not available to the 2.5 million Venezuelans living in Colombia.
Immediate needs, however, haven’t faded.
“There’s a serious humanitarian issue with food, health, and housing,” said Felipe Bogotá, director of projects at Movilizatorio, an organisation promoting citizen participation in social transformation.
Migrants forced into desperate situations
Inside Venezuela, only 35% of requested humanitarian aid was granted last year; funding was 15 times less than that allocated to Syria and 14 times less than Ukraine this year.
According to a 2022 World Food Programme report, hunger has worsened since 2019 for migrants and for the Colombians in communities where Venezuelans have settled. Some 73% of Venezuelan migrants who are in transit in Colombia and 43% of the host communities are food insecure, WFP reported. At least a third of pregnant migrant women are anaemic, and 3-5% of children under five suffer acute malnutrition.
Occasionally, distress forces migrants to exchange sex for shelter or food, Bogotá added; others sleep in the streets.
“Sometimes, I ask men to pay me in advance, because I haven’t eaten all day. Imagine, you lay there, hungry and tired, while they do their thing.”
Parque Nacional, in the centre of Cúcuta, is full of Venezuelan women in short dresses, high heels, and heavy make-up. One of them, Michelle Quiroz, a 27-year-old Venezuelan trans-woman, said she started selling sex because she saw no other way of making ends meet.
“My love, this is terrible,” she told The New Humanitarian. “Sometimes, I ask men to pay me in advance, because I haven’t eaten all day. Imagine, you lay there, hungry and tired, while they do their thing.”
Still, she has different hopes for the future and has managed to learn English despite her desperate conditions. “I'd love to be a translator or something like that one day,” she said.
José Luis Mosquedo, an undocumented Venezuelan migrant who arrived in Colombia from La Guaira in northern Venezuela in 2019, was among the homeless. He worked in a coca plantation near Cúcuta, but his employers abandoned him in the mountains after a disagreement and he spent nine days finding his way back. When he arrived at the Alfonso Gómez settlement, he couldn’t afford to pay for food nor housing. At his lowest point, he weighed only 49 kilos.
“I slept with cardboard on the ground,” he told The New Humanitarian from his perch on a stone on a hill overlooking the Alfonso Gómez settlement.
Many in the camp have health issues as well. Pimiento says her nephew was recently hospitalised because he drank contaminated water, and that other Alfonso Gómez residents have had severe diarrhoea or are infected with dengue.
“Pretty much the whole community has been very sick,” Pimiento said.
Leonor Calderón, a Colombian woman who lives in Alfonso Gómez, is one of them. She came back to Colombia after years of living in Venezuela. “The situation was too hard there. I had to come back to get medical treatment,” she told The New Humanitarian as she limped around on her diabetic foot, suffering chronic pain.
Adapting to the new reality
Aid organisations are looking for new ways to operate, focusing on stabilisation efforts rather than on emergency response.
“The support needs have changed, so the NGOs need to change their focus too,” Ligia Bolivar, associate researcher at the Center for Human Rights at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, told The New Humanitarian.
“We’re convinced that the most important thing is not delivering an emergency plate of food, but providing the tools so migrants can effectively insert themselves into life in Colombia.”
She remembers the expectation back in 2016 was that migrants would stay for a limited amount of time, then return to Venezuela. But the crisis has persisted, and today 62% of Venezuelan migrants say they want to stay in Colombia.
The humanitarian emergency is also no longer at its peak, and NGO leaders now disagree on how to address it. Comparte Por Una Vida Colombia, an organisation working to reduce inequality between migrant and host populations, is one of the NGOs helping the new arrivals with their legal challenges. With the support of IOM, it also educates them on their rights and duties in Colombia.
“[Emergency] humanitarian aid must stop, and we have to focus on stabilisation, integration, and processes to build agency capacity,” said Lala Lovera, a Venezuelan migrant and Comparte Por Una Vida Colombia’s executive director.
Arellano, from Fundación Juntos Se Puede, agrees that a shift to thinking long-term is necessary, but she worries what will happen to the high number of migrants who keep reaching Colombia.
“We’re convinced that the most important [thing] is not delivering an emergency plate of food, but providing the tools so migrants can effectively insert themselves into life in Colombia,” she said. “But there must be a balance because Venezuelans continue to arrive with emergency issues like malnutrition or having nowhere to sleep.”
In downtown Cúcuta, a group of Venezuelan migrants sit in a circle on white plastic chairs in Fundación Juntos Se Puede, sharing their experiences of arriving in Colombia. Small Colombian coffees called tintos are being shared while NGO workers type on their laptops, preparing help for other migrants.
“The school system is really different here,” says one mother about how hard it was for her daughter to adjust when arriving here. “They even use different words than in Venezuela,” the daughter interrupts, explaining that children are sometimes bullied in school when their Spanish is different from that of the Colombian children.
But overall these migrants still find life easier in Colombia than back in Venezuela. Claudia Rosales, a 47-year-old Venezuelan migrant who has started her own business selling hand-made accessories, volunteers to teach other migrants how to do handcrafts and earn some extra money.
Pimiento, who dresses in pink and purple clothes and has dyed her hair blue, is phlegmatic about the situation.
“It’s just really hard to work in a community like this one,” she said.
She adds that she hasn’t lost hope because she knows people usually find ways to subsist.
It is what Mosquedo has been doing. After settling in Alfonso Gómez, his family joined him from Venezuela. He now struggles to feed his two teenage daughters and decided to go and work in the nearby coal mines during the week. In Venezuela, he was an airport equipment operator, but in Colombia he hasn't found similar work.
“I don’t know how it’ll be, and I’m afraid,” he said. “But it’s the only job I can get here.”
Edited by Tom Brady and Daniela Mohor.