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SÃO PAULO –Venezuela’s continuing economic implosion, with chaotic de facto dollarization and persistently high inflation making life ever more challenging for the poorest, has been leading a growing number of people to leave the country and move to neighboring nations.
Church officials who work with migrants in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Peru have been reporting a higher influx of Venezuelans crossing the border over the past few weeks.
Many of them end up joining immigrants from other nationalities – Haitians, Cubans, and citizens from several Asian and African countries who want to reach North America – but Venezuelans outnumber all others.
“It is not comparable to the emergency we had in 2019, but now between 300 and 700 Venezuelans get into Brazil every day,” said Sister Terezinha Santin, who heads the Migrants’ Pastoral Ministry in Roraima state.
She explained that there are shelters for some of the immigrants on the border and in Roraima’s capital city, Boa Vista. The Brazilian government also has a program to help them settle in other states. But the great number of newly arrived and the lack of policies to help them find work and rent a house is provoking a humanitarian crisis.
“There are thousands of Venezuelans on the street now. The Church offers at least 1,200 hot meals to homeless immigrants every day in Boa Vista, and another 400 in Pacaraima [a city on the border],” Santin said. With the beginning of the rainy season, she is worried about the conditions of those groups.
Most of the current immigrants have some kind of vulnerability, according to her. The ministry is currently accompanying a group of 100 senior Venezuelans, people who came into Brazil with no relatives, no money, and no plans for the future.
“Many of them suffer with severe health problems, including cancer,” Santin described.
The other day, she said, she talked to a retired cook who had one son living in Colombia and the other one in the United States. “His wife died, and he decided to cross the border. He is now on the street,” she lamented.
Many pregnant women and single mothers with toddlers are also entering Brazil, Santin added.
“They want to give birth in Boa Vista due to the lack of healthcare in Venezuela. Others want to enroll their children in Brazilian schools,” she affirmed.
But Brazil has not expanded the number of schools and hospitals in the region, so there is a growing deficit in those services.
Xenophobia has been increasing. The Migrants’ ministry has trained dozens of volunteers who will accompany Venezuelans to doctors’ appointments and other public services in order to help them to understand the information in Portuguese and guarantee they will be properly treated.
Another cause of the recent surge is the expiration of a United States policy connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed the country to more easily expel immigrants without documents, said Cindy Rodero, who works at Caritas Bogotá in Colombia.
“All sorts of fake news have been spread through social media, and many immigrants have the hope they will be able to get into the United States. Human trafficking is huge now,” she told Crux.
Colombia has been the most important destination of Venezuelan immigrants over the past years. Thousands of them are still crossing the border and entering cities like Cucuta, where the local diocese and a number of congregations – including Scalabrini fathers and Jesuits – have implanted shelters and programs to help the immigrants over the past years.
“There are also Venezuelans who cross the border every day in order to work or study and then go back to their country. They face several risks, as there are criminal gangs all over the border,” Rodero said.
In Colombia, like other South American nations, new arrivals encounter several difficulties to regularize their migratory status, something that impedes most of them to get a job or rent a house, she said. That is why many are also moving back to Venezuela now.
During the peak of the previous Venezuelan crisis, the church established a regional program to assist immigrants in transit called EuroPana. The name combines Euro – because its funds come from the European Union and the German Caritas – and pana, a Venezuelan slang for friend.
“We act in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, providing food safety, hygiene kits, and information about their rights,” Rodero explained.
Such coordination between different nations seems to be especially relevant now. Stefany Cochachi, in charge of EuroPana in Peru, told Crux that there are fluxes currently moving in different directions between Chile, Peru, and Venezuela.
“Chile has militarized its border due to the growing number of immigrants without a visa who tried to cross through the desert or the beaches,” she explained.
The problem is that the Peruvian authorities also began to impede immigrants without papers to get into the country. That situation led hundreds of Venezuelans – and people from other nationalities too – to remain trapped on the Chilean-Peruvian border.
Earlier this week, a flight carried 115 Venezuelans from Arica, in Chile, to Caracas. But there are many more immigrants in that situation.
“Chile was the elected destination for many Venezuelans – and still is. But many of them failed to get a job and are now leaving the nation,” Cochachi said.
A work group formed by several organizations, including Peru’s Caritas, is now talking to the government to establish a humanitarian corridor between Chile and Peru, so the immigrants can properly leave the area, she explained.
“There are families, pregnant women, mothers with babies. Peruvian legislation allows undocumented immigrants to enter if they are vulnerable. But that law is being ignored,” Cochachi lamented.
The complexity of such scenario has prompted different church agents to mobilize. Despite all such challenges, Rodero said that the South American church is now more prepared to deal with the immigration crisis than it was a few years ago.
“We have been working in networks and can coordinate our actions more easily – and demand the governments’ intervention too,” she said.