NADJA DROST: In the border town of San Antonio de Táchira, Venezuelans fed up with their hardships are fleeing their country every day, by foot, for Colombia. They exit cars and buses suitcases in hand…and walk toward the Simón Bólivar International Bridge and cross into the town of Cúcuta.
Some are heading off into the uncertain world of those who emigrate without a work visa. Venezuelan Luisa Gomez arrived two months ago. A single mother, she tries to support her five children, grandchild, and mother by selling toothbrushes and toothpaste on public buses.
LUISA GOMEZ: It’s difficult, there’s some drivers who don’t let you work, because so many Venezuelans have arrived, there’s a lot of vendors.
NADJA DROST: Gomez is on the move from dawn till dusk seven days a week. After tipping drivers who let her on, Gomez netted two dollars yesterday. Today she went home with 13…barely enough to feed her kids.
LUISA GOMEZ: When I enter this door, the first thing they ask me is, ‘Mama, what did you bring me?’ And it’s sad to arrive at home without anything.
NADJA DROST: Home for now is a barebones house that a local church member has let her live in rent free until November. She’s already behind on utility bills.
LUISA GOMEZ: If I don’t even have 35 dollars to pay for the gas, how am I going to pay for rent? I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is distressing.
NADJA DROST: Gomez hopes she can get a work permit and her kids could be eligible for schools here — whatever she can do to avoid going back to Venezuela.
LUISA GOMEZ: If God permits that things get settled, I’ll stay here in Colombia, trying to raise my kids. It’s difficult to start with zero and sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
NADJA DROST: With Colombia’s 50 year civil war having reached a truce last year, many Venezuelans see Colombia as a safer bet than staying put.
For decades, Colombians fleeing the armed conflict crossed this bridge in droves into neighboring Venezuela to seek refuge. But now the traffic is going the other way. Every day, tens of thousands of Venezuelans walk this bridge into Colombia — seeking medical attention, buying basic goods, like flour and toilet paper, or to move their entire lives across the bridge and try to start new ones in Colombia.
On the Colombian side of the bridge, vendors and small shops have popped up next to money-changers, where Venezuelans exchange wages paid in their devalued currency — a week’s worth of wages gets them a few bags of cornmeal, rice and bars of soap.
A few minutes walk from the bridge, there’s a line down the block for a soup kitchen run by a local church. It opened in March to respond to the influx of hungry Venezuelans. It serves 500 to 800 lunches a day. Some stay in Cucuta indefinitely. Others, like this woman, go home to Venezuela after spending the day carting migrants’ belongings across the bridge for cash.
WOMAN: Carrying suitcases for my kid and what I make with that is for food for the house.
NADJA DROST: Colombia has become a lifeline for Venezuelans, not only for food and supplies, but also medical services currently unavailable or unaffordable in Venezuela.
Venezuelans have discovered — one way to access Colombia’s health care system is through hospital emergency rooms. At the main hospital in Cucutá, Dr. Andres Galvis says ER admissions of women and children have jumped 50 percent in the past year.
ANDRES GALVIS: They are patients who have no, no, no resources, none. They arrive here in really bad shape. Children who often require dialysis, with severely infected kidneys. Everyone injured by firearms or in traffic accidents, all classes of trauma.
NADJA DROST: Dr. Galvis says with dire hospital conditions in Venezuela, many expecting mothers flock to Colombia to give birth. His maternity ward traffic is up 100 percent this year.
ANDRES GALVIS: The patient arrives when she’s already in labor, in pain. They wait until they’re in labor, the water’s broken, and whoosh you attend to them.
NADJA DROST: Johanna Sanchez left Venezuela when she was four months pregnant.
JOHANNA SANCHEZ: With the situation there, I couldn’t return. I had a baby last year, and it died on me.
NADJA DROST: She says her last birth had complications, and the baby required an operation. Afterwards, she says, the Venezuelan hospital didn’t have a catheter that was the right size.
JOHANNA SANCHEZ: They found a different one, but it was thicker, too thick for the baby’s vein. It leaked, there were complications. He lasted 19 days.
NADJA DROST: In Venezuela, William Bayona supports his family with the little money he makes driving kids to school in his van. But now he needs cataract surgery.
WILLIAM BAYONA: The doctor prohibited me from driving, but I can’t let myself stop, because who’s going to support my family and me?
NADJA DROST: Born in Colombia, William is a bit luckier than most Venezuelans: He’s a dual citizen who qualifies for free, government-provided health care in Colombia. He crossed the border with his cousin.
WILLIAM BAYONA: We’re in Colombia!
NADJA DROST: I asked him what would his situation would be like if he wasn’t a dual citizen?
WILLIAM BAYONA: One couldn’t even think about it without a Colombian ID; there’s no insurance.
NADJA DROST: He’s come to this clinic in Cúcuta, because cataract surgery in Venezuela is available only at private clinics he can’t afford.
WILLIAM BAYONA: It’s too expensive. To get that kind of money, you’d have to work for a year.
NADJA DROST: With limited Colombian government support, a Catholic mission in Cucuta has come to the aid of Venezuelan migrants — providing lunch programs for children, workshops for mothers to start micro-enterprises, and helping families find homes. Father Francesco Bortignon runs it……and wants Colombian authorities to be more responsive to the migrants.
FRANCESCO BORTIGNON: What is important for us is that the state opens its eyes and sees that there is already a significant number of people with very specific needs, for whom the state is doing nothing, because the only ones doing anything are us humanitarian organizations.
NADJA DROST: Without legal status or work permits, many Venezuelans get pushed to the margins of Colombian society. Some, like Maria Rivera, live in neighborhoods like this one…squatting on land by a creek full of raw sewage. After emigrating, Rivera lived in a better house with her husband and their five-year-old son. But her husband’s sporadic work as a day laborer can’t cover their rent and utilities.
MARIA RIVERA: He’s earning very little now, about 40 dollars a week, and with that we have to pay the rent. That’s why I’m moving, because the rent’s got me up to here.
NADJA DROST: They’re moving here, where there’s no rent, into a one-room shack with a dirt floor. Her husband built it with plastic tarps and second-hand planks of wood.
MARIA RIVERA: This is where the kitchen will be, there’ll be a little table and the two-burner stove.
NADJA DROST: Rivera’s neighbors, who also fled Venezuela’s’ hardships, are struggling in Colombia. Their husbands are out looking for work.
NEIGHBOR 1: If they get work, they don’t pay them as they should. They pay very little. My husband works in a hardware store, but they don’t pay him the correct wage.
NEIGHBOR 2: A Colombian’s day wage is between 10 and 13 dollars. That’s the mínimum. For a Venezuelan, they give 5, 7 dollars a day.
NADJA DROST: Some Colombian employers take advantage of these Venezuelans living in the shadows. Other businesses won’t hire Venezuelans without work permits for fear of government fines. As a result, Venezuelan migrants are pushed into precarious jobs, selling their wares in the streets for tiny amounts of cash. Even children are pressed into sales.
NADJA DROST: Deportations are rare and Cucúta’s mayor, César Rojas, says the influx of Venezuelan migrants willing to work for less is making it harder for his constituents to find jobs.
CESAR ROJAS: I’m worried about the lack of work opportunities in my city. For whom? For my citizens, for those who live in Cúcuta. But if there’s an exodus of 200 or 300-thousand Venezuelans, well, unemployment is going to rise in our city.
NADJA DROST: In expectation of an even greater influx from Venezuela, should the government of president Nicolas Maduro collapse. Mayor Rojas says regional and national authorities are making emergency plans.
CESAR ROJAS: We don’t know how many people we’ll be able to receive. We have arenas ready for whatever moment there’s an avalanche of Venezuelans, if there’s a coup d’etat, we’ll be on the alert. But I cannot say that I’m going to build shelters for refugees.
NADJA DROST: With or without a warm welcome, the Venezuelans keep coming. With Colombian authorities estimating 100,000 have settled in Colombia so far this year.