The Struggles of Stranded, Returning and Newly Departing Venezuelans During the Global Pandemic

Silvina Acosta

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The Struggles of Stranded, Returning and Newly Departing Venezuelans During the Global Pandemic

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.

Joselin Ferrer, a 41 years old lawyer, is one of the few Venezuelans who has been able to return to her country. She arrived by plane from Santiago, Chile on May 6th., despite several obstacles put in place by the Maduro regime.

More than 4,000 Venezuelan citizens, stranded in 10 countries, have demanded repatriation flights to Venezuela, according to news reports. For more than three months, Venezuelans living in vulnerable situations during the pandemic have been waiting for flights in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, Panamá, and the United States.

“I got a return ticket with a Venezuelan airline to come back on March 14th, but the flight was canceled,” Ferrer explained. “I arrived in Chile in April 2019 with my 12-year-old daughter, and two round-trip tickets… It didn’t go badly in Chile. I adapted quickly, but I lost two jobs, the last one in February as a sales supervisor in a cable TV company.” As a consequence of the violent protests of late 2019 in Chile, many Venezuelan migrants were out of work .

From October to December 2019, at least 29,000 Venezuela left Chile for different reasons, which may be family, work or even the so-called “social outbreak,” a series of protests and riots in response to an increase of the subway fare, the cost of living and inequality in Chile.

Months later in the midst of COVID-19 quarantines, closed borders, and airports, Ferrer worked hard with 167 fellow citizens to advocate for a repatriation flight. “We needed to be organized to push the Venezuelan authorities to respond to our demand. We knew that Chilean authorities were negotiating with Venezuela for special permits to allow citizens from Chile stranded in Caracas to come back to Santiago,” she said

The Maduro regime announced the suspension of general and commercial air operations outside the country beginning March 17, as a COVID-19 preventive measure. Only overflights, humanitarian or United Nations-coordinated flights, and landing and takeoff of cargo and mail are permitted. Any other type of flight requires special permits from the national aviation authority.

“It was very distressing not knowing for sure when the plane would arrive,” Ferrer said. “In April, the embassy called us to fill out and send forms with our personal data, but the consular staff did not offer reliable information about the travel date…. We submitted petition letters, and were even able to camp in front of the embassy in small groups.”

Fifteen Flights Would Be Enough to Repatriate Stranded Venezuelans

The Venezuelan regime has not reported on the number of repatriation flights, which have landed or taken off from its international airport. However, other governments have reported on the return of their stranded citizens from Venezuela. The European Union (EU) has sent eight flights to Caracas during the quarantine: The last one returned to France with 139 citizens of EU states on July 18th. The Peruvian government rented a plane from the Venezuelan airline Estelar to repatriate stranded citizens in Venezuela to Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.

David Smolansky, the commissioner of the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) for the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis, stated on Twitter that “15 flights would be sufficient to resolve the situation of 3,000 Venezuelans stranded abroad with the intention of returning to their country.”

Meanwhile, other nations have negotiated special permits with the Venezuelan authorities to guarantee the repatriations of their citizens. Yet, the Maduro regime seems reluctant to permit the repatriation of the thousands of Venezuelan migrants and tourists stranded in other countries and subject to COVID-19 quarantines.

On April 24, Ferrer knew through an unofficial source from Venezuela that a flight from Caracas-Santiago on the airline Conviasa was authorized to go Chile, but the embassy and the Chilean foreign service denied that information. “At that time, a group of stranded [people] were already camp[ed] in front of the embassy. Nobody answered our questions about the flight date. They always denied its existence,” said Ferrer.

Later, on April 29th, the embassy sent an email to the Venezuelan migrants in Chile to announce that they would deliver new and renewed passports on May 1st. Ferrer received information in advance from Venezuela that a flight would arrive on that day.  “The passports’ delivery operation for that same May 1st was a smokescreen for distracting the stranded, who insisted that a flight was coming hours later,” she said.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, Venezuelan embassies had limited consular services due to the lack of resources and the political crisis. The embassies are not able to respond to requests for travel documents in a timely and regular way.

On that May 1st, Ferrer and 64 others who were stranded decided to go to the airport to see the Conviasa flight landing. “We could run to the airport, but had only 30 minutes,” Ferrer said.

Although she and the others stranded had valid traveling documents to take that flight, and the 30 dollars for the airport departure tax, no authority from Venezuela or Chile allowed them to take that plane. “Only eight people and one cat boarded that flight paying 1,000 dollars per ticket, including the pet.”

Few stranded Venezuelans can pay the cost of airplane tickets. Most are living in shelters or friends’ homes. The decision to require or to waive payment rests with the governments and airlines. Media sources report that ticket costs range between $600 and $1,000.

Ferrer had to pay only the $30 airport departure tax for her and her daughter. With 250 passengers, Ferrer returned on a flight by the Venezuelan flag carrier airline, Conviasa, which took off at 1 am on May 6th heading to Caracas. Prior to the flight, the group was tested for COVID-19.  In Venezuela, Ferrer and her daughter spent 21 days in two different isolation centers before reaching home. Overall, it took three months from Ferrer’s decision to return to Venezuela, to reach the front door of her home on June 15th in Lecherias, 200 miles from Caracas.  “My return is definitive. I learned to value more what I have in Venezuela,” Ferrer said. “I learned that you have to work and pay for everything you have… Depredation must be eliminated in Venezuela.”

It Took Four Months to Return Home

Venezuelan migrants stranded in European countries and the United States are also waiting for repatriation flights. After four months of waiting, the first flight with Venezuelan repatriates from Spain landed in Caracas on July 22.

Luisa B., 54, an administrator, flew on a Plus Ultra aircraft with 300 other fellow Venezuelans.  She paid 500 euros, as did about half of the passengers. The other 140 were not required to pay. “When I finally bought the air ticket on the Internet,” Luisa said. “I yelled very loud.” She never imagined that her 15-day visit to one of her best friends in Madrid would turn into a nightmare. Four days before her scheduled return, Venezuela closed its airspace and borders.

“I tried to seek airports in Cuba, Panama, and Dominic Republic to come back, but it was impossible,” Luisa said.  “I had not traveled abroad in five years. I could not believe what was happening. It was an ordeal.”   Confined in her friend’s house and with little money, Luisa B. faced the quarantine and the ravages of the pandemic in Spain, apart from her family in Venezuela. Like other stranded Venezuelans around the world, she organized through social media with her compatriots to demand a flight home. More than 700 stranded and migrants joined different groups to pressure Venezuelan consular officers to arrange a repatriation flight.  Many participated in several protests during and after the quarantine.

“It was very hard,” said Luisa. “I met a lot of homeless families, who needed food and medicine. There were people in shelters, but a lot of people, churches, and NGOs helped us… This (critical situation) teaches us to love our country more, without forgetting the good memories of Spain.” Luis B. said she dreamed of sleeping four days straight when she arrived home. After landing in Caracas, she reported by WhatsApp that she was transferred to an isolation center. On August 3, she said she was back home.

Around 90,000 Venezuelan Returnees Crossed through Colombian Border Checkpoints  

The situation of stranded Venezuelans and returnees is very difficult. Their journeys from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru have been called “the route of infamy.”  Many are walking back, which “exacerbates the suffering” of returnees, according to the Red Humanitaria de Colombia. The journey has been made worse by shelter closures and a climate of fear during the pandemic.

Despite the efforts of Colombian authorities to guarantee a safe return of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in quarantine, Venezuelan authorities continue to restrict entry to the country to only three days per week, and for no more than 300 persons per each authorized day. These restrictions have led to bottlenecks in towns near the crossing points in Colombia, and increased crossings through unsafe routes where migrants fall prey to extortionists and irregular armed groups, the Red Humanitaria de Colombia reports.

As reported in the first post in this series, the number of returning Venezuelan migrants has now reached 80,000 people, including 45,900 migrants between April and May, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  Colombia Migration reports that “more than 90,000 Venezuelan migrants in Colombia have returned voluntarily to Venezuela since the beginning of the quarantine declared in Colombia in March.”

Around 76 percent of the 90,000 returnees crossed the border through the main border cross point (the Simón Bolívar International Bridge), in the department of Norte de Santander (northeast). The majority of the 1,200 buses with Venezuelan returnees arrived at the Norte of Santander. Others went to the checkpoints in Arauca (east) and La Guajira (northeast).

Buses from different cities and towns from Colombia bring the returnees to the border checkpoints, particularly Cucuta. Regional and local authorities coordinate the bus transfers, and the procedures and protocols to house the migrants before they cross the bridges. The passengers of theses buses generally have priority to enter Venezuelan territory.

The walkers arrive mostly in the same city – Cucuta – but have to wait longer to cross through the checkpoints. They have to stay overnight in the few open shelters, sleep on the street, or cross irregular paths. The chaotic concentration of migrants in Cucuta has led to calls to open a new humanitarian corridor.

At the beginning of June, the Colombia government set up a health care transition center to house Venezuelan returnees near the border checkpoint and bridge known as Tienditas, at the Norte of Santander. The migrant population also undergo a screening and medical control process. Two weeks later, the facility’s services collapsed due to the need to serve more than 1,400 migrants.

An Increasing Number of Venezuelan Walkers Are Coming to Colombia

The Red Humanitaria de Colombia — a network of more than 10 civil society organizations that assists walkers along the route, with shelter, food, and information — reported in July on a new phenomenon taking place in the border, a new wave of Venezuelans seeking to enter Colombia. The report points out that “30 percent are migrants who walk back to Venezuela and 70 percent walk from Cucuta in the direction of various cities in Colombia, and other countries such as Ecuador and Peru… From June 28 to July 5,568 walkers were returning to the Venezuelan border, and 1,035 walkers entering to Colombia.” Yet at the beginning of the pandemic, 70 percent walkers were returning to Venezuela, and 30 percent leaving Venezuela.

Since the third week of June, the Red Humanitaria has monitored that the entry of walkers into the interior of Colombia has increased, and the flow of walkers returning to Venezuela has decreased. They identified four groups of people among the walkers leaving Venezuela:

  • Returnees who found a worse situation in Venezuela, and walked back to Colombia or other countries.
  • Migrants who could not wait for humanitarian corridor authorizations and were not able to stay more days waiting without shelter or food.
  • Venezuelans leaving for the first time because of food scarcity and the political situation.
  • Voluntary deportees, who signed documents agreeing to return to Venezuela but in many cases were coerced into it. Some of these migrants never re-entered Venezuela, while others re-entered Venezuela but later returned to Colombia through unauthorized channels.

Although around 4 percent of Venezuelan migrants have returned to their country through Colombia during the COVID crisis, the Red Humanitaria anticipates that the bi-directional flow of migrants will continue for several months. “Around 19 percent of those who walk are minors, and 25 percent are women, of which 3.7 percent are pregnant.

August 5, 2020

Silvina Acosta