Venezuelans flee Maduro regime seeking freedom and safety — but asylum is elusive

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Misery stalks Venezuela

How shortages of food, medicine and pretty much everything are grinding a South American country into the ground.

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When Venezuelan authorities arrested her mother in 2014 on thinly veiled political charges, her brother went into hiding and Mery Muñoz was left alone.

Just 16 years old, she lived by herself in a house that was regularly ransacked by police and armed, government-backed groups known as colectivos. She was attacked and threatened as they destroyed furniture, doors and even a wall — just to prove they could.

Her front door had been broken down so many times she had to wire it shut at night — a flimsy barrier between her and one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

“It was a home that was 100 percent destroyed,” said Muñoz, now 20, who goes by the name Balvina. “I had no brother, no mother, no family. They even knocked down a wall inside the house. ... All that was left really was the geographic location of a home. That was the only thing they couldn’t take.”

After fighting for a year, Muñoz finally helped win the release of her mother, but the harassment didn’t stop. Her brother — a student activist — was repeatedly detained and tortured, she says. Authorities threatened to throw her mother in jail again if she stepped out of line. And they warned Muñoz that she was now old enough to go to prison.

Tormented by what she had lived through during her 11 months alone, and the unceasing threats, Muñoz and her mother fled to Colombia in September and applied for political asylum.

But what they’ve found on the streets of Bogotá is a new kind of torment. Their asylum petition might take as long as two years to be approved and during that time they can’t legally work.

So Muñoz tugs a small speaker onto Bogotá’s crowded bus system every day and sings songs — some based on the poems her mother wrote in prison — for spare change.

“When you don’t have the right to work, you don’t have the right to live,” said Muñoz, who sometimes makes as little as $3 a day. “You have no right to eat, no right to clothe yourself. There’s nothing.”

The exodus of more than 1 million Venezuelans in recent years has rattled a region unprepared for the influx. Most of those fleeing are trying to escape the regime of President Nicolás Maduro amid an economic collapse, food shortages and crushing hunger.

But more than 145,000 Venezuelans are also seeking asylum around the world, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, claiming that their lives and physical safety are being threatened.

Read More: Venezuelan exodus reshapes South America

For them, asylum provides a critical escape route and a chance at safety. But some are finding the asylum system is so restrictive that it represents its own form of punishment.

Muñoz said she and her mother had been told that once they reached Colombia they would be able to work, apply for aid and rebuild their lives.

Instead, in Bogotá, a sprawling city of eight million, they were informed that because they had left without valid passports — documents the government in Caracas had denied them — they weren’t eligible to work. A Colombian official suggested they should try selling arepas on a street corner, illegally, as their petition was processed.

Muñoz said she and her mother became depressed as they struggled to pay their $200-a-month rent and keep food on the table. Aid agencies only occasionally offer financial help, and it’s never enough to pay the bills.

“We can’t go back to Venezuela but we feel like we are in a giant prison here,” Muñoz said. “The only good thing about this enormous prison is that I’m with my mother.”

Neighboring Colombia, in particular, has been slammed by the exodus, as authorities estimate that more than 600,000 Venezuelans have arrived in recent years. While the government has issued about 155,000 temporary work permits for Venezuelans, it is also deporting those who are here illegally.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, asked the region to consider Venezuelans a population in need of humanitarian protection that shouldn’t be expelled and should be offered the right to work.

“Many Venezuelans are leaving their country for a variety of reasons, including their beliefs and personal traits, insecurity and violence, lack of access to food, medicine and essential services, as well as loss of means of survival due to the current economic situation,” the UNHCR said in a statement. “While not all Venezuelans are refugees, we believe a significant proportion are in need of international protection and could qualify as refugees.”

Those seeking political asylum in Colombia feel particularly vulnerable. Many, including Muñoz’s mother, are reluctant to speak for fear that it might derail the application process. Aid agencies here also say they suspect that some people have been denied asylum for being too outspoken.

Ill-fated photograph

For almost a year, Estefania Valbuena, 23, has remained quiet about her experience in Venezuela, for fear it might affect her asylum petition. But she said she’s talking about it now because the silence is destroying her.

During widespread national protests in 2017, Valbuena, an actress and audio-visual producer, photographed the mayhem. One day, she says, she watched a young boy approach a group of men making Molotov cocktails.

Valbuena said she tried to send the boy home, but he said his grandmother had died due to lack of medicine, his mother had left the country and that he was staying with relatives who had no food. Valbuena snapped his picture — wearing his white school uniform and inspecting a row of Molotov cocktails — and recounted what he had told her on Instagram.

As the post went viral, people who claimed they were the boy’s family went on television and accused Valbuena of “kidnapping” the child and forcing him to make the explosive devices, presumably as part of a propaganda stunt.

State media ran with the story, with headlines like “The opposition uses children to instigate violence,” and Diosdado Cabello, one of the government’s most powerful political figures, denounced Valbuena on national television.

Threatened with a 19-year prison sentence, Valbuena said that she felt like she’d already been convicted in the media. She cut her long blonde hair to disguise her appearance, fled to Colombia and asked for asylum.

Even as she was denounced in the Venezuelan press, she refrained from defending herself online, for fear that it might interfere with her asylum petition. But the silence has become untenable.

It was the crackdown on free speech that forced her to flee her country in the first place, she said, so to bite her tongue now felt like a betrayal.

“When I stay silent I feel like they won,” she said of the Venezuelan government. “For psychological reasons I have to defend myself. … I can’t live with this feeling anymore.”

Read More: A desperate journey seeking medicine

Along with maintaining her innocence, Valbuena said she feels compelled to talk about the discrimination she’s encountered in Colombia. Once a television personality, Valbuena says shopkeepers in Bogotá refuse to sell her things when they hear her accent. She says she’s been verbally and physically assaulted, and now rarely leaves her home.

“I constantly feel terrible,” she said, her voice cracking. “And one of the things that disturbs me is to not be able to talk publicly about this. I want people to know what’s happening.”

She’s decided to speak up, but the decision worries her: “I really don’t know what’s riskier, to talk about what’s happening to me or to keep the [political] protection and say nothing. I don’t know which one hurts me more.”

That Venezuelans are flocking to Colombia is something of a historic irony. During Colombia’s half-century civil conflict, more than 3 million people are thought to have fled to Venezuela, where many were given residency and working papers.

But based on asylum statistics, it seems Colombia is reluctant to return the favor. While Colombia has seen a larger influx of Venezuelans than any other country in the Americas, it has received only 1,057 asylum petitions, according to the United Nations. That puts it in 12th place behind countries like Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. The United States alone has received almost 59,000 asylum applications from Venezuelans in the past four years.

Muñoz says she’s grateful that Colombia opened its doors to her and her mother, but she says it has also destroyed her sense of self-worth. Petite and driven, Muñoz says she worked hard in high school and university and has dreams of becoming a professional musician. She says it’s “humiliating” to sing for a captive audience on a bus in hopes of making spare change.

“I feel like an enormous monster that doesn’t fit anywhere, not in Venezuela and not here,” she said. “And it’s sad because I know I’m not a monster but a person with rights and obligations. And I would love to fulfill all my obligations as a citizen if I was just given the right to work.”

This story has been modified from the original.

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