Venezuelan Migrants Forced to Return Home Amid the Pandemic Due to Their Vulnerability in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru

Silvina Acosta

Credit: Lidiya Ribakova /

Venezuelan Migrants Forced to Return Home Amid the Pandemic Due to Their Vulnerability in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru

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.

Thousands of Venezuelan migrants in South America face a Hobson’s choice, remain in their host countries in conditions of extreme vulnerability and mandatory quarantines, or return to Venezuela, despite the risks of contagion from the virus, the closure of borders, and Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

The Nicolás Maduro´regime reported that as of April 29, 21,243 Venezuelans had returned.[1] As of April 29, the vast majority of Venezuelan returnees entered the country through border checkpoints with Colombia (Táchira, 11,633; Zulia, 4,147; and Apure, 3,782). The rest, 1,681, returned through the Bolívar state, on the border with Brazil, according to “unverifiable” government reports.

As of mid-March 2020, an increasing flow of Venezuelan “forced returnees” has been reported mainly from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. These three nations share 60 percent of the more than five million Venezuelan refugees and migrants who have left the country in the last five years, as part of the largest migration crisis in the world after Syria.

Based on official reports, fewer than one percent (21,243) of the 3 million Venezuelans who live in the three Andean nations had returned to Venezuela by the end of April. The migration crisis in the sub-region has worsened due to COVID-19, which has exposed the vulnerability of Venezuelans, both those outside and inside the country.

Militarized Isolation Without Humanitarian Assistance

Humanitarian and human rights organizations in Venezuela estimate that between 600,000 and 1.5 million Venezuelans migrants may be returning this year. However, they cannot reach a consensus on a projected number because they have been denied access to the returnees. “The government refuses to issue safe-passage to human rights organizations. We are neutralized at home and immobilized to work,” says Rafael Uzcátegui, coordinator of Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (Provea).

According to a Provea report, the Venezuelan government has begun to set up temporary centers for returnees in several states. There will reportedly be 71 such centers, able to accommodate a total of 3,664 persons, in five border states and two central provinces. The Provea report indicates that an eighth center has been established in the city of Barquisimeto, Lara state.

Testimonies of returnees collected by Provea and other organizations criticize the isolation centers for being militarized and the absence of medical and humanitarian assistance organizations. They also criticize their overcrowded and unhealthy conditions, lack of electricity, water, drinking water, face masks and disinfectants.

The isolation centers have mostly been converted from educational facilities, which were closed by the quarantine.  They house anywhere between 60 and 800 people, who are confined for 7 or 14 days, and are later bussed to their places of origin. The health protocols and types of tests administered for quarantined persons are not known.

Human rights organizations have been alarmed by reports of recurring abuses by military personnel against returnees in these centers. “We are concerned about criminalization and stigmatization,” Uzcátegui told CMS. “We continue to receive complaints of verbal abuse. The returnees are treated as traitors to the government, enemies of the revolution, and they are held responsible for COVID-19 cases in the country, ¨

The Servicio Jesuita de Refugiados de Venezuela (SJR), founded in 2001 with “the mission to accompany, serve and defend in an integral way the rights of people in a situation of refuge in Venezuela,” has no access to the isolation centers. The Jesuit priest Eduardo Soto Parra, SJ, director of the SJR Venezuela, recommends that multi-sectoral attention be paid to ensure safe and dignified conditions in the centers.  It is essential,” he says, that “we have a presence in these temporary isolation centers to verify the conditions. UNHCR, OCHA, IOM, and the Venezuelan human rights organizations that work the protection cluster must have access to the centers to verify compliance with UN international human rights protocols and standards in temporary shelters; to support in humanitarian work; and to ensure broad and truthful public information about the quarantine isolation centers.”

Migration Emergency

Uzcátegui also emphasizes that it is necessary to declare “a migratory emergency to allow international agencies” to monitor conditions. A total of 26 organizations from the continent, convened by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), signed a joint pronouncement on April 29 to “urge the governments in the hemisphere to adopt an active diplomacy to defend the rights of Venezuelans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Among the seven principles set forth in this statement is that solidarity with Venezuelans should not end when they leave their country. The declaration urges compliance with international treaties and conventions, because “most of the migrants and refugees from Venezuela in the Americas lack a regular migratory status in their host countries, leaving them without access to formal employment, education or medical care.”

In Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, the most vulnerable Venezuelan migrants decided to forego the mandatory quarantine from the end of March to become “forced returnees” or walkers. The lack of work and income to cover their basic expenses for food, housing and health care forced them to return Venezuela in more adverse conditions than when they had left it.

Most returnees come from the neighboring country of Colombia, where 1,825,687 Venezuelan migrants and refugees reside, according to the Regional Platform for Interagency Coordination of UNHCR and IOM. [2]

The busiest crossing point between the 2,219 kilometer (1,379 mile) Colombian-Venezuelan border is Cúcuta-San Antonio, where most of the returnees, more than 10,000 people, had crossed by the end of April, according to official data.

Migration Colombia reported that as of April 29, a little more than 14,000 Venezuelan citizens had returned to Venezuela thought the official border checkpoints. Although the Red Humanitaria de Colombia estimates that about 50,000 Venezuelan citizens had traveled to the border by the end of April.

In the interim, walkers and buses with returnees have not stopped arriving in Cúcuta and surrounding areas. Migrants are crowding into squares and wandering the streets because shelters and accommodation centers largely remain closed due to the mandatory quarantine.

Forced Return

“The humanitarian groups in Colombia are very concerned because the phenomenon of returnees is not controlled,” says José Luis Muñoz, spokesperson for the Red Humanitaria de Colombia, which brings together the few humanitarian organizations working on the border at different points in Cúcuta, Pamplona and Bucaramanga.  He reports that between 15 and 20 busses “arrive from the interior of the country” each day, but they do not even reach 5 percent of all the people who want to leave Colombia voluntarily. There are many humanitarian groups in Colombia, but they are working to strengthen the quarantine and not the return, because it generates mobility and is not convenient within a quarantine. The efforts of many are aimed at supporting the migrants so that they stay [in place], endure and do not return to Venezuela because reality is worse there and to avoid a major crisis.”

However, the phenomenon of return has been uncontrollable. Muñoz warns that Cúcuta, Bucaramanga, and Bogotá, among other cities, risk collapse. “The accumulation of Venezuelan migrants in Cúcuta is becoming a time bomb,” he says. “It can be turned into a highway for contagion. There are many migrants wandering in the Cúcuta metropolitan area as well as in Bucaramanga where there are thousands of homeless people.”

An estimated 800 to 1,500 returnees each day reach the border in Cúcuta, but the Venezuelan military and immigration authorities allow no more than 400 people to cross daily, which creates a tense and risky situation for returnees and the Colombian population.

In a video on Facebook, the Director of Migracion Colombia, Juan Francisco Espinosa Palacios, states that the return of migrants depends on the ability of the Venezuelan authorities to receive them at the border. Migracion Colombia urges returnees to make contact with the Colombian municipalities to coordinate the return and to avoid concentrating at exit points.

The Red Humanitaria de Colombia criticizes its country’s politicians for “very bad treatment” towards returnees. Humanitarian programs have been closed as a result of the pandemic. Many of them have not been reactivated. “Only some very brave humanitarian groups are helping returnees by offering them food and shelter so they can stay overnight on the streets,” says Espinosa. “There is an army of people collaborating, but it is not enough.”

The 33 decrees issued by the government of Colombia to address the pandemic have not afforded Venezuelan migrants any benefits, which increases their vulnerability, especially those who requested refugee status, according to a PROVEA report. As Muñoz concludes, these suffering Venezuelan citizens “seem to have no homeland … there have never been so many abandoned as now. ¨

“The Paradox of Escape and Return”

In his personal Facebook account, Jefferson Díaz, a Venezuelan journalist, and director of civil society group, Colectivo Araguaney in Ecuador, writes:

I understand those who want to return. The despair. The anxiety. Not knowing how to survive. Losing the roof [over their heads]. Starving. Not having a job. Loss of hope. I understand those who ask for humanitarian corridors.

Díaz is a Venezuelan migrant who arrived with his family in Quito 3 years ago. After working for the newspaper Ultimas Noticias and the online news media El Estimulo, he decided to leave his country, given its increasing economic, political and social deterioration. He and other Venezuelan journalists and professionals abroad have built networks and organizations to support their fellow Venezuelans who are affected by the mandatory quarantine.

Interviewed by CMS, Díaz works daily with a group of other Venezuelan migrants in the Araguaney Colectivo, to coordinate aid and deliver food to at least 300 families of migrants in conditions of extreme vulnerability in Quito.

Díaz says that the same Venezuelan walkers who arrived in Ecuador in 2018 “with less than $100 and without university studies, are now returning. Most of them worked in the informal sector and began to leave Ecuador or return to Venezuela at the end of last year.”

As of December 31, 2019, the Regional Platform for Interagency Coordination reported there were 366,596 Venezuelan migrants in Ecuador, mostly living in Quito and Guayaquil. This figure includes migrants who crossed official migration checkpoints with entry and non-exit stamps. However, the total number of Venezuelan migrants in Ecuador may exceed 400,000.

At the Ecuadorian-Colombian border, at least 27 irregular border footpaths have been identified for Venezuelans and others transiting without a visa or valid identity documents. In 2019, Ecuador joined five other Latin American countries to require visas from Venezuelans in order to enter their countries. On May 1st, the Colombian press reported that the situation is critical on the border with Ecuador. “The Police intervened with tear gas to prevent a group of Venezuelan migrants from crossing the Rumichaca International Bridge en masse,” reported Semana magazine. This Colombian publication exhaustively covers Venezuelan migrants, especially through its Migration Venezuela project (known as migravenezuela).

The migravenezuela platform reported in early May that Colombian authorities along the border with Venezuela are proposing the opening of a humanitarian corridor from the Ecuadorian city of Tulcán to avoid  bringing together so many migrant walkers at the border crossing. The Ecuadorian authorities were criticized for allowing the walkers to cross the border checkpoints without coordinating with their Colombian peers. It is not known how many Venezuelan returnees from Ecuador are forced to start their return walking in groups. The distance from Quito to Cúcuta is 1,661.5 kilometers (1,032 miles).

Twice Abandoned

Venezuelan migrants and refugees living in Peru have also been forced to return to Venezuela due to the adverse effects of COVID-19. Since April, migrant walkers, evading quarantine restrictions and facing the risk of infection, have embarked on the long trip from Peru to Venezuela.

On May 1st, three of eight Venezuelan walkers were killed in a hit and run accident in Barranca, 189 kilometers from Lima. The injured survivors explained that a tank truck was driving at full speed and rammed them as they rested at 5 am at the edge of a road. The accident generated shock and negative reactions from Venezuelan authorities and citizens.

After Colombia, Peru is the country with the largest number of Venezuelan migrants worldwide. The open-door migration policy of the former Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski exponentially increased the flow of Venezuelans migrants to Peru. In 2016, no more than 7,000 Venezuelans resided in Peru.  Over the next four years, that figure reached 861,049, according to the Regional Platform for Interagency Coordination.

“In 2018, between 5,000 and 12,000 people arrived per day” prompted by the temporary permit called Permiso Temporal de Permanencia or PPT,” explains Venezuelan Juan Daniel Tapia, director of the NGO Futuro.  “At that time, the immigration authorities expected no more than 400,000 Venezuelan migrants. When Kuczynski resigned, the internal migration policy changed.”

Today, only 164,000 Venezuelan migrants have legal status in Peru and an estimated 500,000 are living irregularly. A total of 482,571 have applied for refugee status, and are waiting for their appointments in 2021 and 2022. Refugees remain the most vulnerable Venezuelan population during the pandemic.

The international community has not sufficiently funded plans and programs to mitigate this humanitarian crisis, and politicians exploit the crisis for political advantage. As of 2019, Tapia confirms an increase in discrimination and xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants promoted by the Peruvian government and exacerbated by the sensationalist media. Last January, Peru created a brigade against “criminal migration.”  Yet the British Broadcasting Corporation reported that of the more than 730,000 reports of crimes in 2019, fewer than two percent involved Venezuelan migrants.

Mirelis Morales, a Venezuelan journalist based in Peru, reports on the dire situation facing Venezuelan migrants in Peru:

The Peruvian government says that the international organizations must respond for them. UNHCR distributes food to cover only 200,000 of the almost million Venezuelan migrants and [it] makes transfers with prepaid cards. There are also efforts by the ambassador to the president Juan Guiadó, Carlos Scull, who runs a solidarity feeding program for 80,000 Venezuelans. But it’s not enough. There is no joint action. There are no programs with impacts that reach the regions outside of Lima.

Perception of the Effects of COVID-19

In Peru, between April 17 and 20, the think-tank Equilibrium-Centro para el Desarrollo Económico (Equilibrium CenDE ) led by Venezuelan political scientist, Gustav Brauckmeyer, carried out a  national opinion survey, “Quarantine COVID-19 on the Migrant Venezuelan Population in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.” The results elucidate some fundamental characteristics of the Venezuelan migrant population, the situations they are facing in the context of COVID-19, and their perceptions of the policies of the three governments.

  • between 75 and 90 percent of respondents report not generating enough income during the quarantine;
  • between 85 and 95 percent work in the informal economy; and
  • between 77 and 90 percent do not have the economic resources to sustain themselves and survive the quarantine.

In the case of Peru, about 50 percent said they are at risk of eviction. “The situation is very critical,” explains Brauckmeyer, “because the Venezuelan migrants also do not have the support of friends or family networks.”

Almost all respondents support the quarantines. The governments of Colombia and Peru received positive evaluations for their management of the crisis. However, the vast majority of respondents agreed that the governments of their host countries had not taken them into account in establishing policies related to the pandemic, such as food distribution or protection against eviction. “Most countries have not included Venezuelan migrants in support programs against the pandemic,” Brauckmeyer says. “Basically, we are talking about a population that is abandoned by its country of origin and by its recipient countries. It is a floating population that should be saved by the international community.”

Protection Systems in Check

Carolina Jimenez Sandoval, deputy director of research for the Americas at Amnesty International, explains that the Venezuelan migrant crisis poses two great challenges for host nations: “One is speed; and the other, is magnitude. five years, five million people. A lot of people have come out in a very short time.”

However, Jimenez also criticizes these countries for failing “to coordinate the migration crisis regionally. What was initially a reception policy later became a containment policy, as in the Peruvian case … It is very difficult for these countries to allow free human mobility when they are collapsed in their protection systems for refugees … a shared responsibility system should have been activated.”

Although COVID-19 has led to the return of Venezuelan migrants, the number of returnees pales in comparison to those originally displaced and still living in other countries.  However, Jiménez notes that this situation may change if the economies of the receiving countries deteriorate in the short- and medium-term. “The forced return would also exacerbate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis because the reasons for Venezuelan forced migration remain. They have not changed. They have deepened.”

Brauckmeyer points out that the magnitude of the Venezuelan migration crisis is unprecedented in modern history. ¨It is the first time that a country without being involved in a war or an armed conflict has [effectively] expelled so many millions of people. The systematic destruction of the State is the cause of the exodus of Venezuelans. ¨

May 12, 2020

[1]Thirteen returnees or “walkers” had reportedly contracted COVID-19.

[2] The platform was created on April 12, 2018 to coordinate the response to refugees and migrants from Venezuela.