Thousands of Venezuelans are Stranded at the Colombia-Venezuela Border due to COVID-19

A woman and child among plastic sheets and hanging laundry
Venezuelan migrants stand in a makeshift camp near a bus terminal in Bogota, Colombia, on June 06, 2020. © Guillermo Legaria Schweizer/Getty

For a year and a half, until she was recently evicted from her home, Daniela, a single Venezuelan mother of two, lived in Bogotá, where she made a living as a street vendor. But when the COVID-19 pandemic left her cash-strapped, out of work, and homeless, without access to public food or housing assistance, she made the difficult choice to return to her home country with her children. Since the start of the global pandemic, thousands of Venezuelans have made the same decision.

Colombia hosts 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants, many of whom migrated to escape political and economic crises. Many have Colombian-born children. Through courtroom battles, they have secured greater social protections and a stronger ability to participate in public life. This has included official recognition, access to health services, and nationality for Venezuelan children born there. Nevertheless, as the COVID-19 pandemic has put many who are dependent on informal jobs and living hand to mouth out of work, at least 12,000 Venezuelans have now left the country, according to Colombian migration officials. Some estimate that there are tens of thousands of additional migrants who have gone uncounted.

Colombia has implemented strict polices to contain the spread of the coronavirus and has enforced one of the longest lockdowns worldwide. Under a state of emergency that has been extended multiple times, the government has maintained strict border closures, grounded all flights until end of August, and restricted movement within the country. In mid-May, the Colombian government opened a humanitarian corridor along its closed border with Venezuela to permit thousands of migrants to return home. It allowed seven buses to leave daily for Venezuela from the Colombian border cities of Arauca and Cúcuta.

To make it home, Daniela was only able to afford food and board, as well as the cost of travel from Cúcuta to her hometown in Venezuela, with money that locals donated to her. She was also lucky enough to afford a bus ticket to the border city of Cúcuta: those who are unable to pay for a bus to travel from Bogotá, costing 170,000 Colombian pesos, or approximately 46 USD, have had no other option than to travel on foot. Upon arriving in Cúcuta, Daniela and her fellow bus passengers were left stranded near the border in the middle of the night, far from the migration office and without instructions on how to proceed—illustrative of the disorder that characterizes many Venezuelans’ attempts to return home. Daniela’s trip was also ill timed: at the start of the border restrictions, the Venezuelan government had allowed about 700 to 1,000 nationals daily to cross back into the country. However, by the time Daniela arrived in Cúcuta in early June, that number had been restricted to 300, and crossings had been limited to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The question of border crossings such as these has shone a spotlight on the right to return to one’s country of citizenship. It is one of the core protections inherent in citizenship itself and is enshrined in international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, due to borders restrictions occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, migrants like Daniela have recently encountered even greater difficulties when attempting to do so. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged host and countries of origin in Latin America to do more to ensure the ability of nationals to return in a safe, dignified, and voluntary manner. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also issued a specific call to States to protect the rights of Venezuelans returning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency and other humanitarian organizations have advised Venezuelans in Colombia against travelling to the border, citing scarce aid and shelter, high rates of violence, the proliferation of human trafficking, and profiteering by corrupt officials. The growth of migrant camps on the border has allowed the activities of Colombia’s armed groups to proliferate. In response to this bottleneck that has left thousands of migrants stranded in limbo, the Colombian government has attempted to stem the flow of migrants into border cities, for example by intercepting buses bound for the border. Many migrants are now in makeshift camps in different cities in Colombia, where they lack legal protections against evictions, face discrimination daily, and rely day to day on charity and humanitarian aid.

Her stay at the border that Daniela described to me was telling of the precarity in which thousands of migrants find themselves. Many, like Daniela, wait for hours, or even days, with no roof over their heads or access to basic services for the results of their COVID-19 test and authorization to transit. Humanitarian organizations lack resources to help, while shelters remain at full capacity. Migrants congregating at the border must stay in place, in the event the border opens and they miss the opportunity to cross. Despite being cash-strapped, many are coerced into paying bribes to police in exchange for permission to cross the border.

The lack of protections for migrants and their inability to exercise their rights means that those like Daniela rely on a combination of charity, luck, and bribes to navigate uncertain futures. She was one of the lucky ones: she and her children were finally able to cross in Venezuela, after four days of waiting, using donated funds to pay a bribe to a law enforcement officer. Had she not done so, her stay at the border might have been prolonged for an additional week.

Daniela and her children are just three individuals among the thousands who have been caught up in different iterations of the back-and-forth flight of Venezuelan migrants—which, since 2014, has constituted one of the most acute migration crises in Latin America in recent history. The reality of the Colombia-Venezuela border is a grave example of how States are falling short of their international obligations.

What does the right of return mean in practice? For one, all levels of government, in both Colombia and Venezuela, must work together to ensure that points of entry are re-opened to migrants traveling by bus, car, and on foot. Any measure governments implement to control the number of transits must align with demand and needs at the border. Venezuela must ensure that every citizen attempting to return has guaranteed, prompt and safe entry. Meanwhile, Colombia ensure that migrants are well informed about what to expect on the journey, including the risks and conditions involved in traveling through a humanitarian corridor.

As a host country, Colombia must provide equal access to healthcare and social protections, and ensure that its emergency measures, such as its freeze on evicting Venezuelan migrants, are enforced. Both countries must also deploy enough resources to ensure that humanitarian needs are met at the border, while cracking down on corruption by border officers on both sides. Until governments meet their international obligations by providing humanitarian assistance and both allow and facilitate the return of nationals, all migrants like Daniela can do is wait and hope for the best.

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