Venezuelan Refugees Walk Hundreds of Miles to Return Home Amid COVID-19 Crisis

CUCUTA, Columbia — More than five million Venezuelans have fled their home country since 2015 due to the crushing effects of hyperinflation, unrest, and rampant crime.

But now some of those refugees, who sought a better life in other countries, are now becoming victims of the global coronavirus pandemic.

In early 2019, CBN News made five trips to the border region between Colombia and Venezuela, reporting on the masses escaping Nicolas Maduro's dictatorship.

As hundreds of thousands poured across the frontier into Colombia, they pushed the town of Cucuta to the breaking point. Streets were choked with desperate refugees, hospitals were overwhelmed with pregnant Venezuelan girls, and prostitution was rampant.  

With very few options, many Venezuelans simply started walking — hoping to find work more than 500 miles south in Bogota and beyond. It was an arduous journey, and Operation Blessing was there to help.

Operation Blessing's Diego Traverso said, "Most of the migrants are walking uphill for several hours in very bad conditions to reach Pamplona first, and then go to Bucaramanga or big cities...bigger cities than Cucuta.”

They say if you want to understand somebody you have to walk a mile in their shoes. So CBN News traveled out to a busy highway with a family walking from Cucuta, Colombia all the way to Bogota. And it's very dangerous with lots of big trucks going by.

In this case, the problem with walking a mile in somebody's shoes is that so many of these people don't have any shoes.

"Today we are planning to have a medical brigade here on the way to Pamplona," Traverso said. "Operation Blessing is bringing some water solutions so we are going to be setting up a water station, clean water station, so even when we are not here they are going to be able to walk by, open the faucet and refill their bottles and it's going to be safe water for them."

Those who made this perilous journey took jobs as maids, gardeners, or even sold products on the street. Now with the global pandemic virtually shutting down all commerce, these most vulnerable are again out of work, homeless, and desperate.

For some, starvation is a very real possibility. That's why there is now a steady stream of refugees walking back north along this same route heading back to Venezuela.

Venezuelan migrant Cristal Estanga said people are returning home because there is no work, making it almost impossible to feed their families.

"They are evicting us from our rental and we don't have work. We don't even have a way to feed our children, and it's really difficult."

Even though they will have nothing in Venezuela, these returning refugees won't have to worry about eviction.

"Well, at least there, we won't get evicted from our rental," Estanga added.

The border is officially closed, so these Venezuelans will have to cross back into their country illegally. And the situation in Venezuela is even worse now. Though it still boasts the world's largest reserves of crude oil, gasoline here is almost impossible to find. Food shortages are more acute than ever. And then there's the pandemic to worry about.

Nobody knows how many people may already be infected in Venezuela, but hospitals there report shortages of even soap and clean water and say nothing of ventilators or personal protective equipment. But at least in Venezuela, these refugees will have a bed to sleep in, and that's more than they have right now.


April 18, 2020