Thousands of people are once again leaving Venezuela as neighbouring countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru reopen their economies and lift restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jan Piñeros walked along a Colombian highway with his family, braving the midday heat.
With both of his arms stretched forward, he pushed a pram that carried his two-year-old son while carrying his belongings in a blue backpack that hung from his shoulders.
Piñeros was making a 1,500 mile-long trek to Ecuador, where his family had been offered work in a farm. He left his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, in the middle of September, on foot, because he could not afford a bus ticket.
“In Venezuela, we could no longer feed our children properly,” said Piñeros, who had been walking with his wife and three children for three weeks.
“It may not be the best time to travel,” he admitted. “But we are willing to do anything to improve our quality of life.”
The poorest are leaving on foot, and joining five million people who have already left Venezuela to escape hyperinflation, food shortages and the lowest wages in the Western Hemisphere.
This new wave of migration has prompted Church groups in Colombia to reactivate aid programmes that had been suspended this spring, as lockdowns slowed down Venezuelan migration.
In the Colombian border city of Cucuta, by the end of this month the local diocese plans to have distributed bags with food, face masks and sanitising gel to 4,000 migrants walking along roads that lead out of the city. The supplies were purchased with the support of Caritas Poland, a local supermarket chain and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
“What worries us is that there are many more families on the road now,” said Mgr Israel Bravo, vicar general of the Diocese of Cucuta. “Before it used to be mostly men, but migrants are now bringing their families.”
The pandemic has made leaving Venezuela harder. Gasoline shortages force migrants to walk for weeks just to reach the border. In Colombia, municipal governments have ordered shelters and soup kitchens to shut down in a bid to prevent large gatherings. To make the journey less dangerous, some Church groups are trying to provide migrants with assistance along the toughest stretches of the road.
In the mountain town of Pamplona, Caritas France is supporting a programme run by the local diocese that provides orientation, food and clothes for cold weather to Venezuelan migrants.
Pamplona is located at 10,500 feet above sea level and gets cold at night. It’s one of the first stops along a mountainous road that leads into the centre of Colombia.
“We had four shelters here in Pamplona, but all of them were shut down because of the pandemic,” said Angie Rincon, co-ordinator of Let’s Share the Journey, the project financed by Caritas France.
“There is a lot of frustration among the migrants because they expected support that is no longer there,” Rincon said.
Her project is providing 8,000 migrants with backpacks that contain energy bars, toiletries, gloves and ski masks for the cold weather.
Colombia has shut down border crossings with Venezuela since the pandemic started. Most migrants now entering Colombia are using illegal crossings controlled by criminal groups.
Many reported having to pay bribes to these groups to get across the border. Some had to give up most of the cash they carried with them.
Despite the risks and hardships encountered along the journey towards cities in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, humanitarian groups expect large numbers of Venezuelans to leave their country in the following months.
Colombian immigration officials said in September that around 200,000 Venezuelans could enter the country before the end of this year. The minimum wage in Venezuela is currently less than £2 a month, while in Colombia and Peru, it’s about £195 a month.
Photo: Venezuelan migrant Jan Pinero of Caracas shares a meal with his son as they rest in early October in Pamplona, Colombia. Pineros and his family were making a 1,500 mile long journey, on foot, to Ecuador. (CNS photo/Manuel Rueda)