Venezuelan refugees caught between coronavirus and the desire to return home

Venezuelan refugees are vulnerable to the worsening outbreak in South America: while coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, it does affect some people more than others.

Yerardin Arrieche Sierra, 31, arrived in the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador in August last year with her mother, seven-year-old son Abelardo and other family members. “We were fleeing from the situation in Venezuela, where there are no food or jobs”. She had to sell many things back in the state of Guárico, where she came from, to be able to pay the bus tickets to Guayaquil.

“We were fleeing from one crisis, but now it turns out that it was just to enter another. All the effort to migrate has been in vain. We left searching for a better quality of life, but here it’s even worse,” as we talk the young Venezuelan woman can’t hold back her tears. “I want to return to Venezuela because the situation here isn’t easy at all. It has hit us really hard”.

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The city of Guayaquil has been the worst hit by the coronavirus in Ecuador © Francisco Macias/Getty Images

Yerardin, a Venezuelan refugee in Guayaquil

If coronavirus and the quarantine are hard on national citizens, poor people and people with difficulties accessing the health system, just imagine how the pandemic is treating those living abroad as refugees and migrants. In Guayaquil, Yerardin tells how she used to live from one day to the next by selling biscuits and other such things, then she became a cleaner and a waitress. She didn’t have a contract, which is a normal situation for most Venezuelans. Since Yerardin lost her job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, her brother is the only one working in the seven-person household, doing deliveries by bicycle.

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A Venezuelan refugee being vaccinated in front of an encampment where jobless and homeless migrants are camping during the coronavirus pandemic in Bogota, Colombia © Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images

Yerardin had a few savings and the family managed – just about – to live off of them when they first arrived. When that money was gone, she had to ask for loans from other members of her community. “What we want most is to return to our country, what else do we have left? And the way the Ecuadorian president (Lenin Moreno, ed.) is talking about how much money he spends on Venezuelans creates even more xenophobia”.

She knows of many people evicted from their homes during the coronavirus crisis, therefore breaking the law by violating lockdown measures. “It scares me, that’s why I want to return. I don’t want to end up living in the streets, so I’m eager to return to my country,” which has just over 3,300 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and less than thirty deaths, compared to almost 50,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths in Ecuador (with around 40 per cent of victims concentrated in Guayaquil’s Guayas province alone), though the reliability of Venezuela’s official figures has been called into question.

Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguachon border
The Paraguachon border crossing between Colombia and Venezuela pictured in June last year © Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images

How coronavirus is affecting refugees

Olga Sarrado, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson for Venezuela, is worried about how coronavirus has generated xenophobic attitudes towards Venezuelans in Ecuador as well as throughout the region. “Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, any of us can be affected. The difference is what consequences it can have for those who get infected and become ill. And since the Venezuelans were already in very vulnerable situations before the pandemic, this makes it even harder for them”. 

Recently, a virtual donor conference was held by the UNHCR, EU and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) that led to over 650 million US dollars being raised. “This help is really urgent, it’s a small relief that at least European countries are aware of this situation,” says Sarrado. “If I should mention one other positive thing, it’s the efforts by countries like Peru to at least include Venezuelans in access to healthcare”.

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A virtual conference was held by the EU, UNHCR and IOM to raise funds in aid of Venezuelan refugees © Pool/Getty Images

In Ecuador, three organisations, Alas de Colibrí, Care Ecuador and Diálogo Diverso recently made a statement about the worrying situation concerning Venezuelans in the country, reminding the government about its responsibility to ensure the rights of all people, including refugees and migrants. According to the NGOs, 83 per cent of Venezuelans in Ecuador work in the informal sector and UNHCR studies suggests that regional statistics mirror this proportion.

The vast majority has been very hardly affected by the long quarantine, Daniel Rueda, president of Alas de Colibrí, explains: “They’re the first to get fired. They work informally, without contracts. When a person loses their job and can’t pay the rent, landlords put them on the streets. Even though this isn’t allowed during the emergency, it’s happening”.

Then there’s the discrimination, which Venezuelans all over South America had been suffering from even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but that the crisis has made worse. “What we’re seeing is aporophobia, the discrimination of poor people for the simple fact of being poor. We know this because we don’t see this kind of discrimination towards the richer Venezuelans,” Rueda explains. He adds that some 2,000 Venezuelans have been in contact with the foundation to ask for help. So many that their WhatsApp service has collapsed and there are people constantly on the waiting list. To him, this is a symptom of the lack of guarantees from local authorities.

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The Simón Bolívar international bridge, which connects Cúcuta in Colombia with the Venezuelan town of San Antonio del Táchira. In the image from 27 February, it is shown closed due to the eruption of violence © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The return to Venezuela?

“I’m left here with all the other unemployed,” Yerardin says, crying. “What’s left for Venezuelans? We just hope that this soon gets better”. She isn’t the only one longing for her homeland in these strange and hard times. According to an inquiry by Alas de Colibrí some 43 per cent of Venezuelans in Ecuador want to return home.

Some have actually begun wandering northwards through South America – direction: Venezuela. But it’s very few who have actually been able to leave; less than 300 people boarded a humanitarian flight organised by the Caracas government. Then there are those who have crossed the border illegally from Ecuador into Colombia. A situation that worries Sarrado as “that implies a higher risk because these crossings are controlled by illegal groups, and the refugees are vulnerable to human and migrant trafficking. We’re trying to monitor the situation”. 

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Migrants returning to Venezuela board a bus that will take them from the Colombian capital Bogota to the border © Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images

Outside of embassies and consulates around the region, Venezuelans have been protesting, asking for a way to get back to home given the worsening of the situation in their respective host countries – Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil. Colombia, which neighbours Venezuela, is the South American nation with the single largest population of refugees, 1.8 million out of a total of 4.7 million according to official figures.

Calculations from the International Committee of the Red Cross estimate that half of Colombia’s Venezuelan refugee population could suffer from famine due to the coronavirus quarantine. According to Migración Colombia, the country’s border control agency, between 14 March and 15 May, over 56,000 people returned to Venezuela, equivalent to approximately 3 per cent of total migrant population. These figures don’t include those returning through irregular channels, however.

At the Simón Bolívar international bridge crossing in the Colombian city of Cúcuta, on the border with Venezuela – where some 300 people are allowed to pass daily – María, 40, is about to cross together with her eight-year-old son, who is still feeling a bit sick after the trip from Bucaramanga, the Colombian city they’ve come from. Originally from Barinas, in Venezuela, she decided to migrate in the hope of giving her son a better future and in order for him to study, and had been working in a restaurant in Bucaramanga, sending money to her family back home for the past three years.

“Because of the coronavirus there’s no more work. I must go back to Venezuela because the food is already running out and I don’t have enough money for rent. I decided to sell everything I had and go back home with my son”.

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