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Covid-19 forced Venezuelans to head home. But crossing the border isn't easy

CNN logo CNN 7/14/2020 By Stefano Pozzebon
a tent in the dirt: Venezuelan migrants attempting to return to their country due to the COVID-19 pandemic  remain in makeshift camps at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, on July 7 , 2020. - Colombia has exceeded 4,000 deaths from the new coronavirus since it detected the first case on March 6, the Ministry of Health reported this Sunday. (Photo by Schneyder MENDOZA / AFP) (Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images) © Schneyder Mendoza/AFP/Getty Images Venezuelan migrants attempting to return to their country due to the COVID-19 pandemic remain in makeshift camps at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, on July 7 , 2020. - Colombia has exceeded 4,000 deaths from the new coronavirus since it detected the first case on March 6, the Ministry of Health reported this Sunday. (Photo by Schneyder MENDOZA / AFP) (Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Venezuela's collapsing economy drove them away. Now the coronavirus is sending them back home.

Since at least 2016, nearly 5 million Venezuelans have left their country, according to the UN Refugee Agency, fleeing disastrous poverty and crumbling social and health services. But as the coronavirus pandemic shutters economies across Latin America, many Venezuelans are now being forced to return home -- if their government will let them.

Entering Venezuela in the time of coronavirus is no easy task. Embattled President Nicolas Maduro has claimed that returning migrants could be deliberately infected by other countries in order to spread the virus in Venezuela. His government has limited the number of Venezuelans allowed entry into their own country to approximately 1,000 per week.

According to Venezuelan authorities, at least 56,000 Venezuelans returned between March and mid-June. Colombian authorities keeping track of border crossings believe that at least 60,000 Venezuelan migrants have crossed back into the country through the Colombian city of Cucuta alone since March. They expect tens of thousands more to try to return in the coming weeks.

Why they return

Cucuta, where three bridges cross the Colombia-Venezuela border, is the main transit point for many. "It's like a giant hourglass," said Victor Bautista, Secretary of Migration of Colombia's Norte de Santander Department, where Cucuta is located.

"For the past five years we've seen more than 3 million Venezuelans walk through here, all looking for a way out and better opportunities," he said. "And now it flipped toward Venezuela."

Pedro Roque traveled, often on foot, the 2,100 miles from Lima, Peru, to the border crossing at Cucuta. He had lost his job working in a chicken restaurant, he said, because of Covid-19. Without a salary, he could no longer afford the rent and decided to go home.

In Peru, average working hours have fallen by as much as 80% in the area around the capital Lima since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the International Labour Organization. And the whole Latin American region has seen an almost three-fold rise in the number of people requiring food assistance, according to data from the UN World Food Programme.

As countries with significant Venezuelan immigrant populations like Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia adopted strict lockdown measures to contain the virus, Venezuelan migrants have been left with few options. Most of the migrants CNN spoke with for this story said they worked in the informal economy with no welfare support to rely on during the lockdown.

In Cucuta, Roque sleeps under an awning with three other people as he awaits his turn to cross the border. Social distancing is not a priority, he said. "Covid is a respiratory disease, right? If someone walked 35, 40 kilometres a day to come here, for weeks, he doesn't have Covid. A sick person would not have survived what we went through," he said when asked why he wasn't wearing a mask.

The makeshift camps where people wait to cross the border do not permit social distancing. There are no toilets or running water here, and the largest encampment consists of shelters fashioned from cardboard and black garbage bags under which some 1,300 Venezuelans wait for their turn to go home.

Colombian authorities say they don't know exactly how many people live in the camp. Every time a group leaves, new migrants take their place.

Waiting to be called home

Few would call Venezuela the ideal place to wait out a pandemic.

Ninety-six percent of the population lives below the poverty line according to a recent independent survey by three leading universities in Caracas. As CNN has previously reported, most hospitals in Venezuela lack running water for days at a time, doctors and patients cannot receive the medicines they need and thousands of health workers have left the country looking for better opportunities abroad.

But people need support and community in times of crisis. An international humanitarian worker who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity because they're not authorized to speak to the media said Venezuelan migrants who had not built support networks in a new adopted country were the most likely to return home to Venezuela.

"If I have to starve, I want to starve in my own place, with my family," said Roque, the restaurant worker.

That urge for home appeared to have overridden any doubts about the risk of spreading the virus. Like Roque, some migrants waiting in Cucuta told CNN that they believed they had proven themselves healthy after surviving the long journey to get there. Others said simply that they had bigger challenges to overcome than the virus.

Nevertheless, to check the spread of the virus, most migrants seeking entry to Venezuela are given a color-coded bracelet by Colombian authorities when they arrive in Cucuta. Roque's was red.

Every day, a group wearing a different color bracelet is told to board buses, which take them to a coronavirus screening facility run by the Norte de Santander Department, where they isolate and can be tested for coronavirus if feeling unwell. Each migrant's temperature is tested several times a day; if anyone presents a fever, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is performed on them.

With no fever or a negative PCR test, they are allowed to cross the border, as long as Venezuelan authorities approve. This agreement between the two countries is informal; neither government recognizes the other and in theory, the border is closed.

The migrants then must isolate again once they get to Venezuela, for a minimum of 12 days before being allowed to travel home. The Maduro government has created isolation centers in towns close to the border, where migrants are required to stay.

Venezuela has so far registered far fewer cases than other countries in the region. However, international observers have questioned Venezuela's capacity to test for the virus, saying the real numbers of coronavirus infections could be much higher.

Only 350 Venezuelans are allowed to return to the country on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, for an official total of 1050 per week -- a number that reflects Venezuela's limited capacity to quarantine citizens upon arrival, the Venezuelan border authority told CNN. However, CNN has also witnessed migrants crossing the border on a Tuesday and Colombian authorities say that the border is sometimes re-opened at very short notice.

The Maduro government has said that citizens' rights to enter their own country is respected, and that the slow pace of admission is necessary to protect the rest of the Venezuelan population from the virus.

The future

On the Colombian side, authorities are already worried for when the hourglass will flip once more, and Venezuela's hardships will again force migrants to leave.

"If these people won't find in Venezuela some form of survival, they could well try to go back to the same places where they stayed for the last three years, like in a giant migratory swing where they spend some time in Venezuela and some other time abroad," Bautista, the Department's Secretary for Migration, told CNN.

For some, the swing has already begun: Adrian Lopez and his family of five are now walking back to Bogotá, where Adrian was working in the informal economy.

They had left the Colombian capital in March once the lockdown was imposed, and arrived in Cucuta at the beginning of April after a trek of 370 miles. But in the chaos of their arrival, they never managed to sign up for one of the color-coded groups to be tested for the virus. After two months in the migrant camp next to the border, they gave up on returning to Venezuela.

"I was starving there (at the camp)," Adrian said. "My son is three months old and being born here he is a Colombian citizen. They can't kick us out. At least in Bogotá, I know the place and I will try to find a job, somehow."

Correction: President Maduro has characterized returning migrants as potentially deliberately infected with the coronavirus by unfriendly nations.


Video: Venezuelan migrants fleeing Covid-19 get stuck at border (CNN)

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