An ongoing exodus which the two bridges linking Venezuela to Cúcuta, the first city in Colombian territory, strive to contain. “Increasing numbers of Venezuelans – the bishop of Cúcuta, Msgr. Víctor Manuel Ochoa Cadavid said with concern – are crossing by foot the bridges dedicated to Simón Bolívar and General Santander. Among them, ever more often there are entire families, young people, children, pregnant women.”
Accessible border. It’s the first effect of the worsening living conditions in the bordering Country. In Venezuela the shortage of food, medicine and other essential items has been lasting for too much time. The iron fist of President Maduro weighs heavily on the population, the people are starving and they are resigned to the fact that the situation in the Country will remain as it is. Refugees are increasing.
The most accessible border is the one with Colombia: 2,200 km long, it can be easily crossed from the La Guajira desert to the Araucan prairies
But the largest border city is Cúcuta, which has become a magnet of huge proportions. The regional capital of the department of Norte de Santander has been under pressure for the past two years. Initially the exodus chiefly comprised returning Colombian people expelled by Maduro’s regime when he closed the borders. As the situation grew worse Venezuela gradually opened its borders and now everyone is free to leave and enter the bordering State. “Venezuelans arriving here can be divided into three categories – said Msgr. Ochoa -. First of all there are those arriving in search of food, medicines, or in need of medical treatment. They usually return to Venezuela. The second group consists of Colombians returning to their homeland along with other foreigners, mostly Europeans who are fleeing and use our Country as a land of transit. Finally, there are refugees who cross the border to stay in Colombia or to try their luck in other Countries of Latin America”.
Surging numbers of new arrivals. The situation is chaotic and reliable figures are hard to obtain. “Until a few months ago – the bishop went on – out of 37-40 thousand people crossing the border on a weekend approximately 5-6 thousand remained in our Country, but over the past two weeks as many as 90-100 thousand have entered Colombia.” Increasing numbers of people don’t go back. “It is estimated that six to eight thousand Venezuelans are now living in Colombia. There have been 1.6 million arrivals so far according to the government’s immigration registry, but we don’t know how many of them stayed on and how many have fled to other Countries.” Figures for the month of January are already higher than those published by “Migración Colombia” at the end of 2017, amounting to 1.3 million registered arrivals and 552 thousand people who decided to settle down in Colombia. Among them, some 350 thousand were considered undocumented migrants.
It is estimated that new arrivals in 2017 increased by 50% compared to the previous year.
60% of Venezuelans now living in Colombia have a university or higher education degree. The issue is being addressed at the ongoing Summit of South American Countries in Lima. In an upcoming meeting the ministers of Defence of Colombia and Venezuela will discuss ways to decrease the number of new arrivals.
The major effort of the local Church. The situation in Cúcuta is overwhelming: “People arriving into our Country are in need of food, they are undernourished, diseased, exhausted, many of them have been stripped of all they had. As a local Church we strive to give a helping hand to our brothers in need, to support them and welcome them. We have handed out 330 thousand meals in the past seven months. Every day we serve at least 8 thousand warm meals through soup kitchens located across eight different parishes. We also have a diocesan hostel run by the Scalabrinian Missionaries, but it’s completely full. Many of these people sleep on the street.” Mons. Ochoa went on: “I wish to highlight the efforts of the laity, of pastoral workers, volunteers, parishes, movements and associations.” The Church has the greatest burden of hospitality: “We receive support from Caritas Internationalis and from the Secretariat of the Caritas-Social Pastoral Care of the Colombian Church.” The latter has dedicated the Lenten solidarity campaign to this emergency situation.
“It’s an appeal to charity that we are responding to. We seek to put into practice the culture of encounter that Pope Francis constantly calls us to live out”,
the bishop said, mentioning the strong fraternal bonds with the neighbouring Venezuelan diocese of San Cristóbal: “I have an ongoing communication with the bishop, Msgr. Mario del Valle Moronta. Some of their volunteer workers help us distribute meals to the needy.” The last remark regards the situation on the territory of Cúcuta, “one of the places with the highest unemployment rates in Colombia – said Msgr. Ochoa –. Here we face the problem of drug trafficking and violence. Two guerrilla groups, the ELN guerrilla and the smaller EPL – Popular Liberation Army – are still active.”