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Venezuelans risk life and limb to seek help in Colombia

Venezuelans wade across the Tachira River to seek food and other aid in Cúcuta, Colombia. © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

Refugees and migrants brave floods, bandits and treacherous footpaths in a desperate search for food, medicine and safety in Cúcuta.

By William Spindler

CÚCUTA, Colombia – Venezuelan Jose Luis Jimenez already risked bandits and armed groups to slip across the border to Colombia in a desperate hunt for food for his family – but this week that crossing got even more dangerous.

With the border bridge shut, he joined thousands of Venezuelans fording the torrential waters of a border river in full spate, to seek urgent help in this border city.

At a communal kitchen supported by UNCHR, the UN Refugee Agency, and run by the local Catholic Church diocese, he was among thousands of hungry Venezuelans lining up for a hot meal.

“I am very grateful to UNHCR and the Diocese,” said the wiry 48-year-old with a weather-beaten face. “I rely on this service to feed myself and my children and I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have it.”

“I rely on this service to feed myself and my children and I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have it.”

Amid spiraling hyperinflation, shortages, political turmoil, violence and persecution, more than 2.7 million Venezuelans have left the country as refugees or migrants since 2015 to seek safety or a better life abroad.

The kitchen, aptly named La Divina Providencia, or Divine Providence, serves up to 8,000 meals a day and is a lifeline to Venezuelan refugees and migrants transiting through Cúcuta but also to people like Jose Luis who continue to live in Venezuela but cross the border to Colombia every day. Showers, medical consulations, and legal aid are also available there.

To earn a few Colombian pesos, he carries heavy loads for other Venezuelans who travel to Cúcuta to buy food, medicines or other goods that are scarce or impossible to find in their country.

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Venezuelans cross the Tachira River to seek food and safety in Cúcuta, Colombia. © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

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Plates of rice and beans are set out on a counter at La Divina Providencia food kitchen managed by the local Catholic Church diocese in Cúcuta, Colombia. © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

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Venezuelan refugees and migrants use a rope to guide themselves across the rain-swollen Tachira River to reach Cúcuta, Colombia. © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

Like thousands of his compatriots, he picks his way along the treacherous trochas – muddy footpaths that cut across the scrubland covering the banks of the Tachira River, which forms the border between Venezuela and Colombia. He wades to the other side with the murky water up to his waist carrying heavy boxes, suitcases or car tires.

It is a hard and dangerous job at the best of times: the river is prone to flash floods and the current often carries logs and dead animals. Even worse, bandits and armed groups often prey on the refugees and migrants that use the trochas to leave Venezuela.

Last Tuesday, with the current swollen by heavy rains, the river crossing became too dangerous, even for regulars like Jose Luis. He was one of 46,000 Venezuelans in dire need of help who forced their way across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge between the Venezuelan town of San Antonio de Tachira and Cúcuta in Colombia.

With some exceptions made for humanitarian cases, the bridge had been closed to pedestrian traffic since 23 February.

Security forces on both sides of the border struggled to control the situation as people, desperate to obtain food or medicine, overturned crowd-control barriers. In the melee, crying babies, distressed small children, exhausted pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities, found themselves at risk of being crushed, suffocated or trampled by the crowd. Fortunately, no casualties were reported.

The next day, a UNHCR team observed hundreds of Venezuelans crossing the river on improvised rafts or grasping ropes thrown across the foaming current.

“The onset of the rainy season means crossings will continue to be highly dangerous.”

“The situation illustrates the dangers of irregular cross-border movements by people who are desperate,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday.

“Although by Wednesday the current of the Tachira River had temporarily subsided, the onset of the rainy season means crossings will continue to be highly dangerous.

Although most of the estimated 45,000 Venezuelans that cross every day into Colombia return to their country, up to 5,000 of them remain in Colombia or continue their journeys in search of safety and a new life in other Latin American countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Last year, more than a quarter of a million Venezuelans filed asylum claims, mostly in Latin America. In addition, an estimated 1.3 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have benefitted from other legal forms of stay in Latin America. However, many Venezuelans remain in an irregular situation, which does not guarantee them access to basic rights and puts them at risk of exploitation and abuse.

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Originally posted by UNHCR on 5 April 2019