Colombian Army and Police Launched Operation to Take Control of Irregular Trails

Silvina Acosta

Editorial credit: Sebastian Delgado C /

Colombian Army and Police Launched Operation to Take Control of Irregular Trails

Silvina Acosta is a Venezuelan journalist, living in Argentina, who has worked for numerous media outlets, non-governmental organizations, and multilateral organizations in Venezuela, the United States, and Central America. She graduated from the University of Texas with a Master’s Degree in Journalism, after working as a reporter for the Venezuelan newspapers El Nacional, El Universal, Economia Hoy, and Reuters News Agency. For ten years, she coordinated human rights projects for Trust for the Americas, an affiliated foundation of the Organization of American States (OAS). In this capacity, she worked with vulnerable populations, including migrants. She is currently a freelance journalist and independent consultant. She will be writing a bi-monthly blog for CMS – “Postings from the Venezuelan Diaspora”– that reports on the situation of Venezuelan migrants, refugees, and expatriates throughout the world. CMS will be featuring her work on its website and in its weekly Migration Update.

Over 200,000 Venezuelan Migrants Could Enter Colombia in the Coming Months

Venezuelan returnees are turning around and new migrants are joining them to walk to Colombia and other receiving countries in the subregion. The direction of the migration flow is changing, and it seems unstoppable.

Meanwhile, the number of returnees entering Venezuelan legal checkpoints seems to be decreasing. Since last September, groups of youths, women, children, and entire families have been walking back to Colombia using informal border paths.

Although Venezuela has closed authorized passages to exit the country, its citizens are crossing the frontiers to recover better life options or finally flee their ruined nation. On the other side, Colombia has again extended its border closure, which has been in effect for over seven months. Nevertheless, the walkers from Venezuela are persistent in their journey for survival.  Migracion Colombia estimates that a Venezuelan migrant who returned to his country would seek to come back to Colombia with at least one more person. The projections indicate that in the next months over 200,000 Venezuelan migrants could enter Colombia.

As human rights specialists and migration officers predicted last March, between 100,000 and 150,000 Venezuelans returned to their homeland because of extreme vulnerability in their host countries. However, most of them will again leave Venezuela before the end of 2020 and return to the place they resided before the pandemic.

Eduardo Soto Parra, SJ, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Venezuela, asserted at the beginning of COVID-19’s confinements in the region that “they (the returnees) are coming back temporarily to Venezuela, seeking for a family house roof and a plate of food. But after the quarantines are… lifted in their host countries, they will start their way back.”

It should be noted that more than 60 percent of the estimated 5 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide are concentrated in South American neighbors´ countries. Colombia and Peru received the majority (2.5 million) of this forcibly displaced population.

Although the returnees barely made up 2 percent of the Venezuelan mobility, the migration crisis in the sub-region intensified this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the adverse impacts of the quarantines.

Chile and Peru also report that walkers are using clandestine border routes in recent months. More than 3,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants have entered Chilean territory from Bolivia in 2020. In the subregion, human mobility fluctuations occur across receiving countries despite travel restrictions due to the pandemic.

Walking the Steep Route

Currently, local human rights and international organizations report that an estimated 9,000 Venezuelan returnees and new migrants are walking back to Colombia each month through different irregular tracks along the mutual border. They pay dollars or Colombian pesos to smugglers and try to dodge the dangers of human traffickers, guerilla or armed groups’ recruitments, and narcos’ extortions or threats.

The Venezuelan organization FundaRedes reported to the Colombian magazine Semana that different security bodies and irregular armed groups have committed “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, extortion, attempted sexual assaults, robberies, among other violations” against Venezuelan forced migrants. Most of the migrants who are walking towards the border with Colombia are fleeing the complex humanitarian emergency and seeking to survive outside the country.

On October 18, the Colombian Army and Police launched the “Operation Muralla” (Wall Operation) to take control of the irregular trails where hundreds of people cross the border between the city of Cúcuta and the Venezuelan towns of San Antonio del Táchira and Ureña.

Juana Rico from the Red Humanitaria de Colombia affirmed through Google Meet that “the walkers’ flow to Venezuela has declined. Currently, around 50 people come daily by buses to return to their country. Months ago 1,500 and 2,000 arrived per day. On the contrary, in September, more than 12,000 Venezuelan migrants [walked across] the informal borders to enter the limits of the Norte de Santander.”

After six months of closed shelters and limited humanitarian assistance in Norte de Santander (the most transited Colombian region by Venezuelan migrants), some local NGOs and international cooperation agencies started to resume some of their operations, providing food and health care services. However, it is not enough.

Rico warned that the new walkers are not allowed by law to spend the nights in the shelters, and they have to camp on the streets or the side of the roads despite low temperatures and rainfall. “For us, the human rights organizations, this prohibition is almost a xenophobic act.”

International agencies such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have activated some 24/7 mobile centers of assistance along the 124 miles of the walkers’ route to provide health care, psychosocial help, and general information.

The international Red Cross and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA) are the other organizations providing health aid, hot food, warm clothes, and isothermic blankets along the route, together with Colombian CSOs such as the Red Humanitaria.

On the other side, Solidarités International is one of the few humanitarian NGOs, which is planning to reactivate its five shelters for temporary accommodation (a few hours at a time) and under strict health protocols. It will assist around 300 walkers per day in Norte de Santander, particularly children and women.

Juan Caicedo, the representative of Solidarité International in Colombia, implied by video conference that the closed shelters are an additional challenge to the health crisis in the border. “It exists a hypothermia danger for all those people sleeping on the streets. It is urgent to move them by buses to their destination in the interior of Colombia.”

Meanwhile, the walkers are dealing with restrictions on bus tickets, which prevent them from reaching their final destination in Colombia. Rico explained that the bus companies are obliged to request a temporary permit of permanence to the migrants before the ticket purchase transaction. “This limitation increases the number of migrants in the borders’ cities and towns, triggering chaos, fear, and expressions of xenophobia among the locals (from Cucuta, Pamplona, and Bucaramanga) [of] border cities.”

The process of humanitarian assistance is insufficient and the walkers’ journey gets longer. David Bernal, the ombudsman from the Colombian Municipality of Pamplona (44 miles from the Venezuelan border), remarked by Google Meet that “there is a generation of Venezuelan teenagers and youth between 12 and 17 years old that [are] growing up begging in the route. They have been walking many times the same paths. They do not have any life project… They lost any illusion of tomorrow.”

Running Away from the Calamity Again

Amidst an uncontrolled pandemic and an endless militarized quarantine, Venezuelan people keep being pushed to leave the severe humanitarian crisis of their devasted homeland. With a crippled economy that is increasingly dollarized, Venezuelan citizens continue to suffer fuel shortages, constant failure of public services, alimentary crisis, and lack of medical supplies, as well as generalized violence and grave human rights violations denounced by the United Nations (UN).

A failed state, with the world’s highest crime rate, Venezuela is expelling people every day, who provide remittances for the subsistence of their families at home and fuel indirectly the authoritarian regime’s dollarized economy.

The number of remittances sent by Venezuelan migrants to their families in the country could go from 3.7 billion US dollars in 2019 to $1.9 billion this year (due to the quarantines´ economic and job constraints),” according to projections of a report from the Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello.

New Challenges for Host Nations

Since July when Colombia’s economy began to recover, migration flows have changed. The COVID-19 pandemic restricted human mobility and created new challenges for Colombia, as well as other host countries in the subregion.

“The migration process changed due in part to emergency national decrees during the pandemic in Colombia,” said David Bernal, the ombudsman from the Colombian Municipality of Pamplona. “It is important to understand that the Venezuelan migration crisis is going to continue beyond the COVID-19.”

The unprecedented coronavirus outbreak made more visible the deficits of the institutional, technical, and financial capacities in the health, education, and economic systems in the region. The quarantines sped up the deteriorating quality of life of the most vulnerable people and communities, including refugees and migrants.

South American nations face the virus in the worst conditions: a high percentage of the labor force in the informal economy, hospitals with multiple shortages, and schools disconnected from the digital world.

Workers in the informal sector, domestic workers, one-parent families, indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants, persons with disabilities, and LGBTI people have been the hardest hit by the virus and quarantines’ adverse consequences such as limited access to health assistance, jobs, and housing.

The Latin American governments have been adopted emergency measures and policies to minimize the impact of the pandemic to protect their populations and stimulate economic recovery. Among these actions, the states provided basic emergency incomes to the most vulnerable people.

“As of 26 June 2020, 29 countries in the region had adopted 194 social protection measures to help households. The cash and in-kind transfers implemented in 26 countries to support families in situations of poverty and vulnerability during the crisis covered approximately 69 million households (286 million people, or 44 percent of the population),” United Nations reported.

However, some of these protection benefits do not include migrants, including in most cases legal residents. In Colombia, “none of the public entities has issued a specific decree for the protection of the population of human mobility,” reported the website Estoy en la Frontera (I’m in the border).

Only international organizations such as IOM and UNHCR provide cash transfers, health care, and food, directly or indirectly through civil society organizations or municipalities in Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants without Protection

Before the pandemic, many nations tightened their migration regulations, and the COVID crisis exposed the deficiencies of policies and programs for refugees and migrants.  On the contrary, Brazil focused on the importance of human rights for foreign nationals and allowing refugees to travel to Brazil and apply for resident status while in the country.

Up to last August, 817,105 asylum claims of Venezuelan refugees were pending worldwide and 60 percent of them in Peru. Only 112,468 Venezuelan have been recognized as refugees until just two months ago, and Brazil is the first country to grant asylum to 38,359 refugees (34.1 percent of the total), followed by Spain, according to R4V, the Multilateral Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.

Since 2014, the number of Venezuelans who have applied for asylum in other countries has increased by 4,000 percent, according to UNHCR. Human rights organizations urge nations to expedite and grant refugee status requests to Venezuelan migrants. Yet, nations in the region violate the mandatory international conventions, particularly The Cartagena Declaration on Refugees of 1984. 

Based on this agreement, a vast number of Venezuelan forced migrants should be granted a refugee status in the receiving countries of the region. This declaration expands the definition of refugees to: “persons who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

However, most of the host nations in the region report increasing delays in the refugee status granting process. Under the protection of asylum, migrants would be less vulnerable to the coronavirus and quarantine.

Welcome to Brazil  

While other countries worldwide are restricting the arrival of refugees, Brazil’s Migration Law allows refugees to travel to Brazil and apply for resident status while in the country, highlights a report on Lexology.

William Calvijo, representative of the Red de Venezolanos en Brazil (REDEVEN), explained that “the Brazilian State has the institutional capacity to execute larger policies with greater efficiency… Brazil facilitates the process of immigration status regulation for refugee seekers and migrants. Venezuelan residents have access to social programs as the nationals.”

The total Venezuelan refugees and migrants population in Brazil reached 264,157 persons last August, of which 150,196 were already granted temporary or permanent residence visas, and 101,636 had requested refugee status, based on the R4V figures.

The Brazilian Government allocated more than $90 million in 2018 and 2019 to assist asylum seekers in Venezuela and for emergency humanitarian assistance to the migrants through the establishment of the Operação Acolhida (Welcomed Operation).

This program includes expanding the supply of documentation, housing, protecting the rights of women, children, adolescents, and people with disabilities, supporting Venezuelan indigenous people, voluntary internment to other Brazilian states, and host communities, as well as providing infrastructure and sanitation, R4V summarizes.

Recently, the Brazilian president posted on his Twitter account that Welcome Operation continues: “In August alone, the initiative internalized 1,300 migrants and refugees fleeing the Venezuelan dictatorship. In total, 41,146 people obtained new opportunities in 608 Brazilian municipalities,” the online Venezuelan news site El Pitazo reported.

However, the same news report warned that on September 17th the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office said that the assistance program for Venezuelan migrants could be concluded in 2021, leaving humanitarian activities under the responsibility of local governments, civil society, and international organizations. 

Demanding More Funds for the Migration Crisis

The receiving nations demand financial support for facing the migration crisis. Latin America needs $1,407 million, according to R4V, the platform created to monitor Venezuelan mobility.

Colombia ranks first in the region on the list of nations that receive the most contributions for the Venezuela migration crisis. Also on the list are also Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, developing nations without a historical tradition of immigration. Refugees and migrants arrive at these nations in need of humanitarian attention, which requires an injection of resources from abroad.

According to the R4V, Colombia requires $782 million, of which $113 million has been financed, which represents a deficit. The country still has to manage around 85 percent of that money.

The international cooperation funds do not go directly to the governments. They are executed by NGOs that develop temporary projects for three beneficiaries: Venezuelan refugees and migrants, Colombian returnees, and host communities.

The three largest donors for migration in Colombia are USAID, Japan, and the European Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). Meanwhile, the agencies the World Food Program, IOM, and UNHCR manage the most capital.

The protection of the internationally displaced and host communities is given in water and sanitation, education, integration, protection, health, food assistance, and other items such as household goods or cash transfers.

Meghan Lopez, Director for Latin America for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), claimed to El Nacional newspaper that “only 8 percent of the funds committed for the UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela and 21 percent of those for the Regional Response Plan for Emigrants and Refugees from Venezuela have been made effective.”

Representatives from civil society organizations and municipalities from host communities in Colombia and other neighbors nations constantly criticize the lack of management transparency of the international cooperation funds for mitigating the migration crisis.

Last May in Madrid, the European Union held an international donor conference to raise funds and assist host countries, as well as Venezuelan migrants and refugees. The initiative managed to raise $2,790 million in contributions and $653 million in donations.

After this meeting, representatives of 13 Latin America and the Caribbean countries gathered with donors in Santiago de Chile to participate in the VI International Meeting on Human Mobility of Venezuelan Citizens in the Region last September.

During the summit, United Nations agencies, international cooperation organizations, and development banks reaffirmed the need for international cooperation to contribute to the efforts made by the countries of the region.

At the end of this international meeting in Chile, the participant countries signed the VI Joint Declaration of the Quito Process, a multilateral initiative started in 2018 to promote communication and coordination between countries receiving Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the region.

Among the declaration’s 19 agreements, the Quito Process members ratified their previous statement commitments “to safe, orderly, and regular migration, as well as to the international protection of refugees.” The new declaration also posed new challenges: voluntary return, family reunification, and the impact of COVID-19 on the Venezuelan migrant and refugee population.

The member countries of this regional initiative proposed to examine mechanisms and exchange best practices to guarantee the rights of health, work, and education, as well as the promotion of an inclusive, equitable, and quality life for Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

November 1, 2020

Silvina Acosta