Millions of Venezuelans have fled their homes since 2016, due to the country’s deepening political and economic crisis. Most have sought new lives in nearby Latin American countries including Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. But now, as the COVID-19 pandemic forces those countries into lockdown, closes borders and plunges economies into freefall, returning home seems like the only option.
There are thousands of Venezuelan migrants who, amid despair, have decided to undertake a long journey back home, to face the coronavirus pandemic in a country that lacks water and electricity in 80% of its hospitals.
Victoria*, 14, recently completed a 1200-mile journey to Ecuador from her hometown in Venezuela. She wanted to escape the socio-economic situation in her homeland and make a new life across the border. But getting to Ecuador was not easy. In fact, the difficulties arose from the first moment she left her country.
“When we arrived in Cucuta (the Colombian border with Venezuela), we no longer had enough money to pay for our tickets. My mother had to sell her hair and we used that money to get a bus to Bucaramanga. When we arrived in Bucaramanga five hours later, we had to keep walking, sleeping wherever we found ourselves, even if it was on the street, and eating what people offered us,” explains Victoria.
Victoria and her mother walked for miles, reminding themselves that all the effort would be worth it once they started again.
Now, four months later, Victoria and her mother are afraid they may have to let go of their dreams. They are no match for the COVID-19 pandemic. On 16 March, the Government of Ecuador declared a total quarantine. It is the worst-affected country in the region, and the lockdown is the government’s best chance of suppressing transmission. Since then, Victoria and her mother, who are not regularised and who depend entirely on informal commerce, have been afraid for their future.
“For now, we have food and a little savings. We received financial aid from Plan International and that will allow us to survive for the next few weeks. Our idea has always been to stay, but we do not know what will happen. We still don’t know if we will have to return to Venezuela,” explains Alba*, Victoria's mother.
Since 2016, more than five million Venezuelans have left their country because of the serious socio-economic situation. The majority of them, close to 60%, reside in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Despite having left in search of better opportunities, most Venezuelan migrants live in precarious circumstances. Their income depends entirely on informal street trade. Almost 70% entered the country illegally or have exceeded their legal residence times, so they are in an irregular migratory situation. This exposes them to greater risks of economic and labour exploitation.
Although governments have promoted containment and support measures for the most vulnerable; the lack of access to information, the fear of possible xenophobic repercussions and the insecurity of being a foreigner without legal support, is a huge stress for migrant Venezuelans. "By law, landlords are not supposed to collect the rent, however, we don't know what will happen," says Alba. She knows from experience that the law isn’t always applied to migrants or the most vulnerable.
As this health emergency progresses, the picture of migration is dramatically changing. Now there are thousands of Venezuelan migrants who, in despair, decide to take a long journey back home, to face the pandemic in a country that lacks water and electricity in 80% of its hospitals. The situation is particularly worrying in the case of girls, adolescents and young women who have suffered systematically from sexual and gender-based violence during the migration crisis. Crimes like sexual extortion, human trafficking and forced unions are likely to increase in light of the emptiness and silence of the streets, as the world remains preoccupied with the virus.
Since 2018, Plan International has supported both the Venezuelan population and their host communities in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. As part of its response to the pandemic, the organisation is coordinating actions that respond to the immediate and long-term needs of the most vulnerable through economic support, delivery of goods and supplies, as well as comprehensive education and protection actions.
The Venezuelan crisis had already overwhelmed the response capacity of the neighbouring countries. Now, the pandemic is pushing them to a breaking point. Adding a highly contagious virus is making it even more difficult for migrants to settle into new homes and survive.
Now, more than ever, we must do all we can to protect refugees and migrants, who are most likely to suffer from secondary impacts and, if we’re not careful, become this virus’s collateral damage.
* Names changed to protect identity.
By Camila Mariño, Plan International’s Communication and Information Officer at the Regional Office for the Americas.