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The young Venezuelan migrants trying to make their way in a troubled Colombia

Amanda Coakley reports from Bogotá.

Friends and family with Alejandra García and Carlos Cancines
Friends and family with Alejandra García and Carlos Cancines

ALEJANDRO GRATERÓN BELIEVES that his intestine is detached. Lodged in his right thigh is a bullet. At night, he is in pain. He remembers being taken to the hospital in Valencia where he was operated on by doctors, who he says, didn’t know what they were doing.

He had three operations after a military bullet ripped through his stomach last year.

His crime?

Protesting on the streets in opposition to the Nicolás Maduro government. For five months he was in hospital fighting for his life.

“All the good doctors left Venezuela ages ago,” he says. “The ones who stayed don’t have the experience. They attended to my main injury but they didn’t have the ability to fix my leg, now the bones have set improperly.”

With no hope in sight of getting the care he needed, the 20-year-old left Venezuela with his family nine months ago. They went to the Colombian border by bus and crossed in via a smuggler. They stayed in the border city of Cúcuta for a few days before getting another bus to the capital Bogotá.

They are the lucky ones; hundreds of Venezuelan migrants arriving to Cúcuta, or the northern city of Maicao, have to walk across the country to reach a place where they believe they will find work.

Alejandro’s family chose Bogotá because of employment opportunities and access to health care.

However, they are illegal and have no documentation.

“I went to a hospital in Bogotá,” Alejandro says, “but they said they couldn’t help me because of my status. I can get emergency care but not full health care. What I can do is earn enough money washing car windows with my friends and brother to buy the cream I need to help my stomach heal. At home in Venezuela because of hyperinflation it would take me one or two months to get it. Here in Bogotá I can get it in one day.”

His tightly wrapped wound is still open.

Alejandro Graterón Five Credit_Amanda Coakley Alejandro Graterón Source: Amanda Coakley

Bogotá has received around 22% of all Venezuelan migrants in Colombia.

It’s a massive influx in an already sprawling city of eight million. The streets are packed, the traffic is relentless, the heavy thunderstorms when they come wash away the thick pollution.

This is a tough city and not an easy place to make a home in. For Venezuelans with a PEP card, a permit that allows them to live and work in Colombia for two years, life can be a little easier than those who are undocumented.

Undocumented migrants are more susceptible to falling into drug trafficking,  prostitution, gang violence and exploitation because of a lack of opportunities.

Carlos Cancines Credit_Catalina Rodríguez Sinisterra Carlos Cancines Source: Catalina Rodríguez Sinisterra

Alejandro’s friend Carlos Cancines is 24 years old and served in the Venezuelan National Guard until last year. He says he defected because he didn’t respect the Maduro government.

He is keen to describe the reality of life in Venezuela and eager to express his views on interim president Juan Guaidó.

“People at home are desperate and they want a leader,” he says.

We know we cannot get change over night but Guaidó has to offer meaningful solutions to the economic crisis otherwise nothing will change.”

He lives in El Tunal in downtown Bogotá with his pregnant wife María.

Also undocumented, they are at the mercy of their surroundings.

“The authorities do nothing to help us. They are good for food for three or four days,” he says shaking his head. “Then they give you an assessment, but it’s nothing concrete.”

Colombia has been praised for its initial response to the Venezuelan migrant crisis. They kept the border open, issued PEP cards, allowed all Venezuelan children to attend Colombian schools and gave free healthcare to those with documentation.

However, the government has been slow to establish special services for Venezuelans – especially health care for undocumented migrants and shelters for people without a home. Instead they have tried to incorporate Venezuelans into the Colombian system, which was already at full capacity.

Background

An estimated 220,000 people died, and a further 7.7 million became internally displaced, during Colombia’s 50-year civil conflict.

It ended after a peace agreement was signed between the Santos government and the FARC in 2016.

Today thousands of Colombians live in poverty.

According to the World Bank, 27% were living below the national poverty line in 2018.

Substance abuse affects lives and domestic violence is prevalent with sexual violence being reported daily according to National Institute of Legal Medicine.

In a recent interview with TheJournal.ie, the Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said:

“The migrant crisis is a huge challenge to us in every field. It’s a huge challenge in the field of health, in the field of education, in the field of employment, in the field of security, in the field of many other aspects of Colombian life.”

When pressed on what the government was doing to give full health care to undocumented migrants, and what is was doing to establish shelters, the response was similar: “It’s a huge challenge, in every sector of Colombian life.”

Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo Credit_Amanda Coakley Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo Source: Amanda Coakley

The National Director of NGO SOS Children’s Villages Colombia believes the government has been slow to act.

Angela Maria Giraldo Ramirez has been monitoring the Venezuelan crisis since its infancy.

“Recognising services for a migrant situation that took too long. I think it was trespassed or it was coloured by the government not wanting to create a political crisis with Venezuela,” she says.

She also argues that the concept of Venezuelan poverty on top of Colombian poverty is key to understanding the crisis.

“From an outer perspective you might think that the poor people living in the shacks are Venezuelans, but you turn around and you see Colombians living in a similar situation.
So recognising that this is a poor community receiving migrants, that makes it a special migration crisis.”

As the number of Venezuelans entering Colombia increases there is concern about rising
xenophobia.

New services for migrants run the risk of angering poorer Colombian communities who
have been lobbying for support for years. This is a delicate balance that local authorities are trying to strike.

The office of Bogotá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa, says the city has established a policy of open arms and understands the need to receive all migrants. Despite this there are no long-term shelters for Venezuelans in the city and access to health care for undocumented migrants is “still being worked on”.

When TheJournal.ie visited their facilities in mid-March they had two reception centres and one shelter in Villa Javier in downtown Bogotá that can officially house 50 people for a maximum of one week.

To migrants on the streets struggling to pay rent, send money back home, and feed their
families, this is too little, too late.

Survival 

Alejandro Graterón and Carlos Cancines are among thousands of Venezuelans in Bogotá.

Washing car windows is a means of survival as they try to get their legal status.

In a few months both will be new fathers and have the added responsibility of caring for a child.

Still they are optimistic about the future believing that they will find work, start to receive more care and one day return back home.

Amanda Coakley reports from Bogotá, Colombia. This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. 

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