The Venezuelan Refugee Crisis—in Colombia

 Many people in the US do not know much about what is currently going on in Venezuela, and of how this is affecting Colombia and the work of Let The Children Live!  

According to an article on 20th February 2019 in the New York Times, the economic crisis in Venezuela has set off a ‘staggering exodus’ and is ‘among the worst in Latin American history’. Three million people have left the country, mostly on foot because their money is worthless: inflation in Venezuela reached one million percent in December 2018, and it may well rise to ten million percent by the end of this year.  

These are not mere economic migrants seeking a better standard of living: they are genuine refugees who are fleeing from dangerous shortages of food, water, electricity and medicine, in addition to the government’s brutal political crackdowns. There are now more than 1,000,000 such refugees in Colombia, and most of them are women and children.  

A lady called Norma was one such case. She fled on foot from Venezuela with her five children and six-day old baby because she was afraid of the increasing danger of civil war between the supporters of Nicolás Maduro, the former President, and those of the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó. Señor Maduro is still clinging to power, but most American and European governments do not recognise the legitimacy of his regime.  

The refugees do not have suitable clothing or footwear for the journey they are making. Their clothes are meant for the heat of Venezuela, and their flimsy shoes soon fall to pieces. Their feet are covered with cuts and blisters. Their route to Colombia takes many of the refugees through a 12,000 foot pass in the mountains, and the cold there is way beyond anything they have ever experienced.

Many of the refugees once had good jobs in Venezuela, and it is especially hard for them to adapt to such a drastic change in their way of life. Some of the parents are plagued with guilt because they can no longer provide adequately for their children. Their professional qualifications are not valid in Colombia, and the refugees have to compete for work at the very bottom of the labor market. Colombia already has plenty of poor people of her own, and the continued influx of refugees is provoking increasing hostility. Fortunately, so far most Colombians have been reasonably sympathetic; and the cultural similarities between the two countries make it easier for the refugees to be assimilated.

At least 60,000 of the refugees are living in the city of Medellín, where Let The Children Live! helps to finance the work of Funvini, our Colombian offshoot. In October 2018 Funvini undertook a survey of the refugees in the streets around Casa Walsingham, its center. Just in that small area they found 83 refugee families, with a total of 96 children aged under six, and 76 aged between six and fourteen. It is 886 miles from Caracas to Medellín, and some of the refugees have had to walk all the way. Some of the children are so malnourished that they are sick if they are given normal food. Funvini has to provide a special diet for them until their tummies recover. Some of the children have other medical conditions for which our social-workers have to try to obtain the necessary medication. For example, one eight-year-old has diabetes; and another suffers from epilepsy. In many cases, the young refugees only have what they were able to carry with them from Venezuela, so they need shoes, clothing and toys as well as food, shelter, education and medical care. Thanks to the generosity of the supporters of Let The Children Live!, 124 of these boys and girls received help from Funvini’s various programmes in the first half of 2019. They ranged in age from 5 to 17. At Casa Walsingham 56 of the younger children are currently able to spend weekdays in safety whilst their parents are working or looking for work. Part of this time is devoted to education, so that the children do not lose the rhythm of going to school; and the remainder is given over to recreational activities. Venezuelan refugees are continuing to flood into Medellín, and increasing numbers of these needy children are seeking help at Casa Walsingham. We would dearly like to help more of them, but funding this care for the refugees in addition to Funvini’s Colombian children is already imposing a grave strain on the limited resources of Let The Children Live! We simply cannot do more unless we raise more funds.