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.
Margarita E. de Lopez, 63, a former journalist, traveled for 38 hours to reach her home in Caracas, Venezuela. She walked along irregular pathways (trochas) in Colombia and then took a bus through Venezuela, which was stopped 22 times to allow Bolivarian security forces to collect bribes from each of its 45 passengers.
The trip cost Lopez the equivalent of $180, which she paid in Colombian pesos. “It is not a lot of money, some people may think,” but Lopez pointed out, it’s half the monthly minimum wage in Colombia and 90 times the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela.
It was not the first time that she had returned from Colombia, after visiting her only son and his family who settled in Bogotá in 2015. She never imagined that a pandemic would keep her away from Caracas for 14 months, much less that she would have to cross alone through irregular border trails.
Lopez began her journey home by searching for information about travel options by land. “I have read a lot of terrible testimonies and news about the trochas. But let me tell you, it was not the worst part of my journey,” she said.
Using Facebook, Lopez found several companies and individuals that provide travel services. She called two companies located in San Antonio del Táchira, a Venezuelan border city near Cúcuta, Colombia. Afraid of being cheated, she requested a lot of information, including photos of the owners of the company. She said one company inspired confidence because it was managed by a woman. “I called her constantly every four days to ask a lot of questions before contracting with her for $50.”
With a suitcase, she flew to Cucuta from Bogotá on January 15th. She took a taxi from the airport to fetch another suitcase that she sent by bus and then went to the place known in Cucuta as La Parada (near a Western Union office) to meet the trochero, her guide along the trails.
It took her an hour and a half to cross into Venezuela. She followed irregular pathways through small and labyrinthine streets, shantytowns, and dirt tracks alongside streams. Avoiding eye contact during the walk, Lopez had to twice pay guerrillas (guerrillos) with black ski masks and civilian clothes. They were stationed at the beginning and halfway down the route.
Lopez said that they waited, “in a sort of desk in the middle of the path surrounded by vegetation and people walking in both direction” and “asked for 20,000 Colombian pesos” (about $5). “Without saying anything, you pay and continue. On the second payment, another guerrilo at another desk shouted that no one [should mess] with the grandmother, referring to me, and told me to have a happy return.”
During the walk along the trochero, Lopez saw people selling masks, plastic water bottles, and even food. She said she was not afraid. At 11:30 a.m. on January 15th, the trocha was full of women, children, old people, and men. “It would look like a fair amidst the jungle.”
Leaving behind the trocha, Lopez arrived at a paved street, apparently on Venezuelan soil, where she boarded a pick-up vehicle, with a driver contracted by the trochero. It took her to the bus terminal in San Antonio del Táchira. She was tired of walking, her fingers hurt, and her skin was flushed from the midday sun.
“The Guerrillos Along the Trocha Treated Me Better”
While the walk through Colombia offered relative safety, Lopez experienced corruption and abuse in Venezuela. “A member of the Policia Nacional Bolivariana snatched all the food I had in one of the suitcases,” she said “I had to beg him for my medications, and as if that wasn’t enough, he also requested money for some soft drinks.”
No one asked her to display a negative COVID-19 test result or for any health information. “They never even took our temperature before boarding a double-decker bus full of people and suitcases,” she said.
Lopez spent 21 hours on a bus trip, which usually takes 10 hours from San Antonio del Táchira to Caracas (522 miles). However, her bus was stopped 22 times by Venezuela security and army forces in order to bribe the passengers. “In each unexpected and improvised check-point, we had to hand over 5,000 Colombian pesos,” about $1.45, she said. “If you didn’t give them money, they could open your suitcase or get you off the bus. The guerrillos along the trocha treated me better.” She started with about $150 for travel expenses and arrived home with only $3.
“The other passengers like me had Colombian pesos. We were outraged. Most of them entered Venezuela to pick up their children and flee again to Chile, Peru, Ecuador, or Colombia. They were sad coming back to this abuse of power, bribery, and corruption,” she said. “Everything is denigrating. How does someone from our same country humiliate us, mistreat us so much?”
Closure of Migration Check-Points Triggers Illegal Business on Trails
Lopez’s testimony reveals the extremely vulnerable situation of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who are returning to or fleeing from their nation amidst closed borders, smugglers, traffickers, and corrupt security forces.
Although the number of Venezuelan returnees has decreased since September 2020, returnees and those fleeing Venezuela share the same experience of crossing the irregular paths and risking their lives, their few belongings, and savings.
The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, mandatory lockdowns, closed borders, and the migratory restrictions imposed by some countries are triggering “an increased number of entries through irregular paths, which leads to the proliferation of crimes such as human trafficking and smuggling throughout the continent,” reported the Organization of American States (OAS) Office of the General Secretariat for the Crisis of Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees.
Víctor Bautista, Secretary of Border and International Cooperation of the Government of Norte de Santander in Colombia told the newspaper La Opinion that, while the borders remain closed, “there is a reality and that is that the border economy flows” and allows criminal groups to get stronger.
As the BBC reported, “the situation is the perfect breeding ground for the illegal market and corruption. From bribes to authorities to cut the line at the crossing with Colombia, to the proliferation of packages offered by tourism agencies to enter Venezuela through Brazil without complying with security protocols.”
In 2020, travel agencies such as Isis Tours offered a $ 2,000 package for stranded Venezuelans in the United States that included the flight from Miami to Boavista and guaranteed “same day” entry and transfer to Caracas (more than 1,200 kilometers) by road “without quarantine.”
Other companies offer Venezuelans similar services. Since December 2017, Viveonline, a Colombian travel agency, has offered, through Facebook, trips from Venezuela to different countries in Latin America, using the slogan “Closer to your loved ones.” This company promises to travel by bus from Caracas, Venezuela, to Colchane, in northern Chile, for $830, La Radio Bio Bio de Chile reported. The journey takes approximately eight days and passes through six countries in South America. On each stop of the journey, a company official awaits travelers and advises them on the next steps to follow.
Viveonline is being investigated by the Chilean authorities for the illegal trafficking of Venezuelan citizens. The company’s website and its social media accounts are offline.
Recently, the Chilean Police revealed that during 2020 there were 13,656 clandestine entries into the country, the highest figure in the last three years. On February 10, the Chilean government deported 100 Venezuelan migrants who had crossed the Bolivia-Chile border. This measure was criticized by the Venezuelan opposition and the Bolivian government.
Colombia Regularizes Migration While Other Host Countries Impose More Barriers
In contrast to Chile and other countries, Colombia set a new precedent in the region by offering residence permits for undocumented Venezuelan migrants. The Colombian President, Iván Duque, announced that Venezuelans would be able to regularize their status with a new 10-year residence permit and that those with existing temporary residence permits could extend them.
He made the announcement alongside Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Other international human rights organizations, the media, and Pope Francis celebrated the Colombian government’s determination to protect and integrate Venezuelan migrants. Colombia will offer protection and legal status to Venezuelans who arrived before January 31, 2021. President Duque invited neighboring countries to adopt similar programs, but many countries in the region continue to deport migrants and impose new travel restrictions, forcing unsafe travel along irregular routes
Deportations and Visa Restrictions
In November 2020, Trinidad and Tobago was at the center of a controversy for deporting 16 minors and 12 adults to Venezuela, even though the children may have been trafficked. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Trinidad and Tobago should have provided protection.
In the last two years, the departure of entire families by sea has been increasingly reported between the coasts of Venezuela, and neighboring islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, Curaçao, and Aruba. On December 6, 33 Venezuelan migrants, including minors, were found dead on the maritime border between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago. Their small, uncovered, fiberglass boat – with an eight-person capacity – sank in a rough sea.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has urged Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago “to immediately implement a serious, impartial, effective investigation into these events, including an analysis of whether human trafficking was involved.” IOM and UNHCR warned that “this tragic incident is a reminder of the extreme risks of sea journeys and other irregular cross-border movements undertaken by Venezuelan refugees and migrants.”
Between 2019 and 2020, at least 80 lives were reported lost between Venezuela and the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Curacao. Eduardo Stein, Joint Special Representative of UNHCR and IOM for Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants, said “urgent efforts are needed to stop smugglers and traffickers, and to protect refugees and migrants from exploitation and abuse. Strengthened regular pathways are also needed.”
Between 2017 and 2021, a dozen countries issued new visa restrictions for Venezuelans. Peru, Chile, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, and St. Lucia all require Venezuelans to have a visa prior to entry.
Claudia Vargas, a migration specialist and professor at the Simón Bolívar University of Caracas, explained to Crónica Uno that these countries do not want to take responsibility for receiving, registering, or integrating Venezuelans.
Assistance and Protection Restricted in 2020
According to an OAS report, the challenges of reaching vulnerable Venezuelans were exacerbated in 2020. In host countries, community food centers and shelters were closed, humanitarian aids stop arriving, and migration regulation procedures were canceled.
CMS reported last year on the unprecedented struggle that thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees faced in receiving countries, particularly in South America. They were forced to survive without work and housing, to undertake dangerous and irregular journeys home, and to endure the uncertainty of being stranded in faraway countries waiting for repatriation flights.
A survey conducted last year by the Venezuelan Universidad Católica Andres Bello (UCAB), found that 42 percent of Venezuelan migrants lost their jobs and 31 percent had thought about returning. Sixty-six percent depend on donations to feed themselves because they were forced to quarantine in host countries. Ninety percent reported a drop in their income and 80 percent stated that they have family responsibilities, inside or outside of Venezuela.
Many Venezuelan migrants, particularly the homeless, have been stigmatized and criminalized in host countries, and returnees are victimized by the Venezuelan security forces (who call them traitors) and are placed in precarious quarantine facilities. Venezuelan returnees have walked from Andean countries and Brazil to reach the Venezuelan frontier without any assistance or protection. The distances covered ranged from 589 to 7000 kilometers (from 366 to 4350 miles), depending on the place of departure. The closest Bogotá, Colombia. The most distant, Santiago de Chile.
After walking between 15 and 40 days along irregular routes and sleeping on the side of the roads, groups of families, women, unaccompanied children, and elderly people reach Venezuelan soil, only to be placed in makeshift centers in closed schools for 14 days. Many suffered xenophobic violence along the road and did not find welcome in their home country.
As diverse migration specialists, humanitarian organizations, and NGOs predicted, the majority of the returnees fled Venezuela again upon the reactivation of the economies in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, living conditions continue to deteriorate in Venezuela. Humanitarian organizations estimate that between 500 and 700 Venezuelans are leaving the country daily.
Equilibrium – Centro para el Desarrollo Económico, an NGO founded by Venezuelan migrants in Peru, conducted an online survey in September and October of 2020 of 900 Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. It found that Venezuelans migrate to countries in the region for three main reasons: the high cost of living in Venezuela (64 percent), lack of food (58 percent), and lack of medicine and health services (51 percent). Most left Venezuela with their family group (51 percent), and women emigrate with their families at a higher rate than men do (62 percent vs 40 percent).
The Observatorio Venezolano de Migración (OVM) of UCAB estimated last May that remittances to Venezuela would fall to $1.9 billion in 2020, down from $3.5 billion in 2018 and $3.7 billion in 2019. Yet, as the humanitarian crisis worsens the dependence of Venezuelans on remittances from their migrant and refugee relatives increases.
Venezuelan Exodus could Reach 7 million in 2021
The number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees exceeds 5.4 million worldwide, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). However, the General Secretariat of OAS warns that this number could rise to 7 million in 2021 “if the countries of the region reopen their borders and the regime in Venezuela remains in place.”
However, the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Venezuela, Eduardo Soto SJ, was more optimistic and said the outflow and pendular migration will persist but not will reach 7 million. “The government in Venezuela, on the eve of regional elections this year and after neutralizing the opposition in the legislative branch, is implementing economic measures and improving public services, to retain the poorest citizens, such as those who made up the fourth and fifth waves of the exodus.”
Soto said that many Venezuelan have already returned to host countries, but others are waiting to obtain their travel documents and will likely leave Venezuela later in 2021. He points out that Colombia will continue to receive the largest number of migrants, although migration to Brazil is on the rise. The OAS has called for strengthening regular border-crossing paths by 2021 and facilitating protection mechanisms for a population that is still in flight.