The feet of Estilita López, 78 years old, are bloodied and bruised from the arduous journey from Yaracuy, in northern Venezuela, to Bogotá, the Colombian capital. Together with 460 fellow compatriots, she now lives in a new, city-funded migrant camp that has just sprung up on a football pitch near the airport.
“I had to leave Venezuela, but this is all there is for us here,” says López, taking shelter from the beating sun in the yellow tent she shares with her daughter and grandchildren as clothes soaked by an earlier downpour dry out on the grass nearby. “We’re waiting to eat something, and I need to see a doctor about my feet.”
Oil-rich Venezuela is mired in economic and political turmoil, with rampant shortages in staple foods and basic medicines. Hyperinflation has rendered the currency practically worthless, and crime is widespread. The dire situation has triggered an exodus of Venezuelans, arguably the largest mass migration in Latin America’s history.
Three million have now fled Venezuela, with more than a million in neighboring Colombia, where opportunities are scarce according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. City officials estimate that more than 250,000 Venezuelans are living in Bogotá.
Just a few blocks from the bus terminal, where many people arrive with only what they can carry, roughly 300 refugees and migrants had established a shantytown overlooking a sewage-strewn canal.
Concerned by reports of crime and disease outbreaks, the authorities shut down that camp and opened the new one, where López now sleeps, on Tuesday. “I lived in the old camp for two weeks,” she says. “I was getting more sick every day there, it was disgusting.”
Despite better conditions in the new camp, which has showers, portable toilets, and visiting doctors, the field floods during downpours. With the rainy season approaching, some worry about about the health of the refugees.
“It’ll turn into a quagmire when the rains come,” says Ricardo Moscoso, who lives in an upmarket apartment building overlooking the camp. “There’s no heating and no real sanitation there … there are cages that are more dignified than this.”
María Gabriela Ruiz, 22, fled Venezuela last year with her boyfriend and had been living in an apartment while working odd jobs across the city. Now, seven months pregnant and unable to find work, she lives in the camp.
“I don’t feel like a refugee, I feel more like a prisoner,” she says as a group of boisterous teenagers play tag around her. “We have to wait to be given food, and sometimes it doesn’t even arrive … last night, I went to bed hungry.”
The camp is not accepting new arrivals, leading many homeless Venezuelans to beg officials at the gate to bring them some food.
Despite the hardship, camp residents say it is still better than what they left behind in Venezuela.
“There’s no food on the shelves back home, at least here we have food and water,” says Jesus Rafael Brazón, 45, who fled Monagas, in eastern Venezuela, three months ago with 14 members of his family. He too made much of the journey on foot. “In Venezuela I started working as a taxi driver, but now there aren’t even the parts available for repairs.”
Brazon, though grateful for the reception he has received in the camp, says he is desperately seeking the right to work. “It’s the only thing that will really help us,” he says. “We need to be able to work, to support ourselves.”
Enrique Peñalosa, Bogotá’s mayor, has called on the government to nationalise Venezuelans.
“It would be a huge help, not just from a humanitarian point of view but also an economic one,” says Cristina Vélez Valencia, Bogotá’s secretary for social integration. “Many of the people arriving are young people, so it would be a huge demographic boost to have them in the workforce.”
Vélez added that the plan is to shut the camp down in January, though what happens after that remains uncertain. “We’re looking at other options,” she says, adding that more permanent refuges for short-term residents are being set up in buildings across the city. “What we don’t want is to keep opening more and more camps.”
Source: The Guardian