Venezuela’s collapse causes humanitarian and security crisis for Colombia

In 2016, a crowd of Venezuelans waited to cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge into Colombia.
In 2016, a crowd of Venezuelans waited to cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge into Colombia. AP

The massive migratory flow from a collapsing Venezuela can be measured by the 91,000 people estimated to have crossed Colombia’s border on a single day in mid-February or by the pain of Delida, a 46-year-old woman whose family is a victim of that collapse, and hundreds of thousands like her.

Three statistics from Migración Colombia, the government’s DHS/ICE equivalent, convey the magnitude of the exodus. In 2012, 2,000 Venezuelans sought to travel through Colombia to Ecuador. In January, according to Migracion Colombia, that number was 56,147 — a rate that would reach about 674,000 by year’s end. Many of those fleeing Venezuela go on to Peru and Chile — and from the words of the migrants, anywhere but a return to Maduro-run Venezuela.

The second statistic shows how many like Delida are seeking to remain in Colombia. In the last six months of 2017, 68,739 applied for Migracion Colombia’s Special Permanent Permission (PEP). In the first 37 days of 2018, 86,833 applied. Migracion Colombia already has issued 1.6 million short-term visa-like permits for those who say they will go back to Venezuela after working a few days or getting emergency medical care or just eating a decent meal.

Delida was in charge of cooks at one of Bishop Victor Manuel Ochoa’s eight emergency feeding centers. A friendly woman, Delida’s smile disappeared and tears appeared as she explained why she left Venezuela. She said that her 22-year-old son had been shot by the Venezuelan national guard while he was on his delivery motorcycle. “They killed him when he wouldn’t give it to them,” she said. He left two small children. With constantly soaring prices (the IMF now predicts 13,000 percent inflation in 2018) making it impossible to provide for them, she had fled to Colombia five months ago with her 18-year old daughter. The two send back money for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Juan, a 52 year-old rail-thin tall mechanic from Maracay, said hyperinflation had put everything out of reach. When he couldn’t pay for the next tire patch with the money earned from repairing the last tire, he left. He has no intention of returning. Scarce food is available only to those who have the “patriot” carnet distributed by the military. The migrants at the church center explained that the carnet had three codes, one to be checked after voting — the right way.

Juan was helping direct migrants waiting patiently in lines to receive their one meal. Each day some 600 migrants start lining up at 5:30 a.m. for coffee and a roll at the outdoor warehouse-like facility with makeshift gas stoves and wooden tables and chairs set out on the stone-covered dirt floors. They are given the chit that allows them to return for the real meal at 10 a.m.

“No woman and no child ever will leave here without a meal no matter how many show up,” Bishop Ochoa told me recently. Parishioners are the source of most of the food and, along with the Venezuelan migrants themselves, prepare the meals. The bishop’s one request was more stoves.

The impressive voluntary efforts by the diocese, the Scalabrini International Migration Network, the Colombian Red Cross, International Organization for Migration and the Colombian government’s initial responses — all practucally heroic given the challenge — are not enough. Some 110,000 Venezuelans, mostly women and children were vaccinated last year in the Norte de Santander department alone, since immunization against measles, polio and diphtheria — along with measures against malaria, dengue, chikungunya and zika — are near absent in Venezuela, particularly for the poor. More is required now, including pre-natal care to identify high-risk pregnancies and avoid needless deaths.

Fortunately, President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, having traveled to Cúcuta three weeks ago, has called for a major international response — and the magnitude of the humanitarian and security challenges clearly require speed, generosity and wisdom. While the licit and illicit commerce across that almost 1,400-mile border is traditional. With no passport formally required between the sister cities of Cúcuta and San Antonio, fewer migrants are returning to Venezuela.

Leaving Venezuela, migrants use seven formal monitored crossings like the Simon Bolivar Bridge into Cucuta, or more than 200 smuggling paths, with now 1,000 to 3000 staying in Colombia daily, according to Colombian officials. Having walked along one of those paths with Colombian police to the mostly dry riverbed separating the two countries, it was clear that not only pedestrians but motorcycles and trucks also can be used to smuggle cattle, gasoline and anything else into Colombia, plus and narcotics or stolen minerals into Venezuela..

Colombia already had the task of implementing a complicated peace accord that ended a five-decade conflict with the FARC guerrillas, while battling other illegal armed groups — the ELN and EPL insurgencies and paramilitary-like transnational criminal gangs like the Clan de Golfo — all financed by cocaine and human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. The complicity of many at the highest levels of the Maduro administration’s largely military-controlled trafficking has been documented by the United States. The Colombia military just denounced Venezuela’s providing sanctuary to ELN leaders and alleged involvement of two Venezuelan troops in the latest ELN bombing in Barranquilla that resulted in the deaths of six police and some 20 wounded.

Colombia’s initial extra military deployment of 3,000 troops and border police undoubtedly will serve to monitor the illegal crossings more closely. However, with easily traversed scrub brush, river and mountain borders, a halt to migration and to security threats from Venezuela cannot be stopped by Colombia, only change in Venezuela can end those pressures.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was a former Director of the U.S. Peace Corps and head of USAID for Latin America and the Caribbean.