The Simon Bolivar bridge has become symbolic of the mass exodus of migrants from Venezuela. The crossing is also just one piece in the complex puzzle facing Colombia, as it struggles to absorb the increasing number of migrants prompted by its neighbour’s economic and social meltdown.
Up to 45,000 migrants cross on foot from Venezuela to Cúcuta every day. The Colombian city has become the last hope for many fleeing Venezuela’s crumbling economy. Already four million people, out of a population of 30 million, have fled Venezuela due to chronic shortages of food and medicine.
Venezuelans, who have crossed the border, describe what life is like in their home country.
“Back there, there is no food, you can’t find anything. There are no medicines. We had to come here to vaccinate the baby,” one woman says.
“At home we only have electricity for two hours a day. We have water from one to three hours every two days. There is no gas,” says another man.
“It’s a challenge to be able to get everyone in our family to sit at the table to have at least one meal a day,” adds another man.
Now in its firth year of recession, critics blame both government incompetence and corruption in Venezuela for the country’s economic crisis.
Crippled by hyperinflation, last year inflation topped 2600%. This year the IMF expects it to hit 13,000%.
President Nicolas Maduro recently announced plans to change the face value of the country’s bolivar currency, knocking three zeros off.
Despite that redenomination, the real value of the minimum wage in Venezuela still only amounts to six US dollars a month.
For those making the journey, Colombia offers a way out of the mess.
“It is much cheaper here and you can get anything. You can find mayonnaise, toilet paper, the essential things needed to feel human. There is no toilet paper or napkins back home. How is it possible that one litre of petrol costs one bolivar and one litre of water costs 5,000, for the love of God!,” says one man.
The bridge from Venezuela to Cúcuta is the main border point between the two Latin American neighbours.
Scores of small businesses have sprung up – from stalls offering to buy hair to wheelchair-taxi services – proof of people’s ingenuity in the face of extreme adversity.
It is estimated more than a million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia. On arrival they are not considered refugees.
But irrespective of whether those fleeing want to live in Colombia – or simply use it is as a gateway elsewhere – they first need to be allowed in, as Rafael Zavala from the UNHCR explains.
“In order to enter Colombia, they need a passport. There are people who manage to get the border mobility card, which is a temporary permit. In addition to that, about a year ago Colombia created a special visa, which is another way of establishing yourself once you are already in the country. To obtain it you must have entered Colombia regularly, with your passport stamped.”
To stem the flow of migrants from Venezuela, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently announced an end to the border mobility card scheme.
The temporary visas were the most common documents used by poor Venezuelans given the difficulty of obtaining a passport.
One man crossing the border tells us: “You cannot get a passport. You can get one if you pay. They were asking for around 10 million bolivares. A salary is about 400-500 thousand bolivares. This means half a million bolivares, and we are talking 10 million. That’s more than one year’s salary to pay for a passport”
With neither the correct documents or the right to work, thousands of Venezuelans – who once held decent jobs at home – have been reduced to begging for food and small change in Cúcuta.
At one shelter run by the Catholic Church, they distribute more than 1,000 free meals a day. Some just cross the bridge for the food.
One man tells us: “The situation is horrible. We come here because in San Cristobal there is no food. I worked at the Town Hall of San Cristobal, but the money wasn’t enough to eat.”
Others cross the border in the hope of finding any sort of job to send some money back home – many families have been split apart.
One mother trying to find work in the city says: “Venezuela is a country which makes me deeply sad because I’ve left my three children behind in order to come here and find a job to send them some money. What would I do if I brought them here? Where would I keep them? I could not keep them on the street.”
Euronews: “Where are you going to sleep tonight?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps in the street, wherever I can find,” she says.
The epicentre of Venezuela’s migrant exodus in Colombia is in the historically volatile region of Norte de Santander.
Armed groups still control vast swaths here, despite a peace deal with FARC in 2016.
That officially ended the 52-year conflict but many of Colombia’s internally displaced now live in Cúcuta’s poorest districts, while the number of Venezuelan migrants entering the city’s vulnerable neighbourhoods since August is believed to have risen from zero to 3000.
Church missionaries who work in the city’s poorest areas say the migrants run a huge risk of exploitation.
Father Francesco Bortignon tells us: “This massive influx of Venezuelans, many of whom are trained professionals, has obviously presented a big opportunity for dishonest employers. They can make half promises, pay badly or not pay them at all. The migrants can also be recruited and sent somewhere. They can be asked to harvest coffee, or even coca leaves.”
Faced with large numbers of migrants, Colombia has called for international help. The EU’s chief for Humanitarian Aid Christos Stylianides recently met President Santos and also visited Cúcuta for himself.
During the visit he announced Europe would be providing an addition 31 million euros in funding – 2 million of which will go to Venezuela and 6 million to Colombia.
“For the Colombian authorities it is a huge challenge to deal with this unprecedented situation, because of course they face also their challenges in their country about the reconciliation process and the peace process. So, our humanitarian aid is going to both sides, inside Venezuela and inside Colombia. Especially in Venezuela we are trying a lot, in order to find ways in particular to provide medicines and to find projects to deal with acute malnutrition,” Stylianides said.
International aid agencies are also working with the Colombian government to provide more shelter for the migrants.
But President Santos has been heavily criticised over Colombia’s efforts to stem the migrant flow.
The head of one migration centre, Willinton Muñoz Sierra, believes Bogota’s stricter policy could backfire by actually increasing the number of illegal entries.
“The measures taken by the Government are effectively a diplomatic closure of the border. Now Venezuelans need a passport or a special permit to enter. Everything is much more complex. The alternative for migrants is to go via illegal entry points. Everyone knows there are criminal groups acting outside the law. This puts the migrants welfare at risk, “he says.
Since February the authorities in Colombia claim migrant numbers have dropped by more than 30%.
They also say nearly 1,500 people have been repatriated.
The Venezuelans we spoke to branded the new measures as “deportations”. One young man forced onto the street, despite having a passport, , was among them.
“As a Venezuelan citizen when I arrive in another country I know there are laws that must be observed. I am working and looking for a legal way to earn a living and get by every day. You cannot evict me from the country and even less take the merchandise as they have done. In Venezuela there are six million Colombians that make a living there and still do very well. But when I come here, they want to throw me out? Why? Where is the justice in that? What did Bolivar want? A united nation. There is xenophobia in Colombia. There is xenophobia because we are Venezuelans.”
From the Colombian border Euronews’ Monica Pinna says the plight of many migrants remains desperate.
“Cúcuta looks like a city that has been hit by a natural disaster: the disaster that is Venezuela. It’s roots are economic and political – it has left its people with few choices!”