Coronavirus Pushes Biggest Migration in the Americas Underground - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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The biggest beneficiary of Colombia's decision to seal its border with Venezuela amid the virus scare could be armed groups.

When Colombian President Iván Duque’s government closed the country’s border with Venezuela on March 14, its move was aimed at reducing the risk of the coronavirus spreading into the nation from its troubled neighbor. Two weeks later, that decision appears to have spawned a different consequence — merely making it even more dangerous and exploitative for Venezuelan migrants seeking to escape their country.

Desperate to flee or at least access Colombia’s health services and food supplies, Venezuelan migrants are now paying illegal armed groups for passage through dangerous informal border crossings. Known locally as “trochas,” these crossings are spread along the 1,379-mile border between Colombia and Venezuela. 

Since 2016, Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia to escape their crippled economy, which left their public health service in ruin and created shortages of food and basic medical supplies. Today, 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees reside in Colombia. Most of them came legally, with Colombia keeping its borders open longer than most Latin American nations even as the migration became a flood last year.

There are thousands entering through the trochas on a daily basis, and that’s not going to be stopped easily.

Eduardo Espinel, Venezuelans in Cucuta Foundation

But since the border closure — OZY was the first to report on the increasing likelihood of that move — a growing body of evidence suggests Venezuelan migrants trying to leave their country are using trochas to get into Colombia. On one occasion, 60 riot police were sent to an area near Cucuta, a Colombian border town, after an instance of illegal migration. Experts and observers say thousands of Venezuelans might be crossing over every day. And other reports suggest migrants are now paying up to 100,000 pesos ($25 U.S.) to cross the trochas and around 25,000 pesos ($6 U.S.) for guides to help them reach the other side. In effect, the border closure has merely pushed what is the largest migrant crisis in the Americas — Venezuelans leaving their nation — underground, potentially making it even harder to manage.

“It’s impossible that the [Colombian] authorities can control all the people that are leaving,” says Eduardo Espinel, director of the Venezuelans in Cucuta Foundation. “Although the border is closed, there are thousands entering through the trochas on a daily basis, and that’s not going to be stopped easily.”

Some Venezuelans are leaving their country out of fear — others to buy food or for medical appointments for diseases like diabetes, cancer and HIV, with treatment facilities scant in Venezuela. 

In the past, Venezuela has closed its border with Colombia, but those instances were during political disputes — never during a crisis of the scale of the coronavirus pandemic. Border closures on those occasions weren’t enforced very strictly, say experts. On this occasion, “the Colombian government is generally trying to make an effort through the armed forces to enforce the border closure,” says Marianne Menjivar, Colombia and Venezuela country director for the International Rescue Committee. “The nature of what we’re facing now is different.”

But while the number of people crossing over has reduced, “they seem to be getting through,” Menjivar adds. And crossing through the trochas presents high risks for vulnerable migrants.

Bogota Shutdown Drill For Coronavirus

A soldier and police officers wear face masks as they stand guard at a checkpoint as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 in Bogota, Colombia.

Source Guillermo Legaria/Getty

For starters, they have to pay. “Women are at high risk of rape,” she says. “Some cross wading through rivers, holding onto ropes. If it rains, the rivers grow, making these crossings even more dangerous.” 

Oxford University researcher Dr. Julia Zulver, who has worked extensively on the border areas in Colombia, shares Menjivar’s concerns. “What we know about these [trochas] is that they have a strong presence of armed actors who, when it comes to women and girls, often engage in sexual violence,” Zulver says. “These are dangerous and precarious places for people to be.”

Eira Gonzalez, a journalist on the Venezuelan side of the arid La Guajira region in Northern Colombia, says she has seen “thousands of Venezuelans with children in their arms asking ‘what are we going to do?’” in Paraguachon, the main border town in La Guajira, after the border closure. Gonzalez used the trochas herself for her work.

For the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think tank, the decision to close the border was “inhumane.”

“It may be justified, but it’s undoable,” says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Andes director. “They should treat vulnerable Venezuelans humanely and with special attention given the public health crisis [in Venezuela].”

But Felipe Muñoz, the government’s border manager, tells OZY the decision was not taken lightly and that it is “not for xenophobic reasons but for other sanitary and public health reasons.”

“There is nothing against any nationality, because 44 percent of the people who cross the border are Colombian,” Muñoz says. He acknowledges the border closure “is clearly not a perfect measure” but adds that the move was made after consultations with the Pan American Health Organization that helped them correspond with the Venezuelan government. The two governments broke diplomatic ties last year.

Indeed, Colombia is battling its own, fast-expanding coronavirus crisis. The country had 798 confirmed cases as of Tuesday. Colombia has now barred entry to all travelers from abroad. All public events have been canceled, and schools, bars and nightclubs have been closed. In a state of emergency announcement last week, an “obligatory isolation” was ordered for the elderly — the most susceptible to the virus — to stay at home until May 31. And last Thursday, Duque announced a mandatory quarantine (with people allowed to leave houses only to buy essentials like food and medicines) until April 13. Fourteen people have died so far from the virus in Colombia.

But the illegal entry of Venezuelan migrants through the trochas could further complicate Colombia’s own challenges too. And it won’t be easy to manage, say experts. “The working relationship that health authorities between the two countries are about to develop is marred in mistrust on both sides,” says Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “Neither Venezuelan health authorities nor its political leaders have credibility with their Colombian counterparts, which is likely to stem the flow of information at a critical time.”

And things could get worse, he warns. For now, Venezuela has reported only 135 cases. But as the disease outbreak gets worse in that country, its broken health care system could turn what began as a “trickle” at the illegal border crossings into a “flood,” he suggests.

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