04 November 2020

Venezuelan migrant crisis

In the past few years, more than five million Venezuelans, equivalent to 16 percent of the population, have left their country, and the numbers continue to rise, as the country’s people flee poverty, disease and repression, after its oil-based economy collapsed into hyperinflation. 

94% of Venezuelans live in poverty. Approximately 30% cannot purchase enough food to meet minimum nutritional requirements. The Venezuelan healthcare system has lost half its doctors to migration, has an 85% shortage of medications, and has hospitals with unstable access to power and running water.

In the first four years of the crisis, wealthier and better-educated Venezuelans were the first to leave, many heading for the US or Spain. After that, middle-class professionals departed for nearby Latin American nations with decent employment prospects. Now, the refugees are poorer, older, sicker and more vulnerable, and Colombia is bearing a disproportionate share of the influx. Methodist congregations in Peru, Colombia and Brazil confirm that many of the migrants they encounter are women, often pregnant women; children, and families separated from loved ones. Many arrive with little or nothing.

Colombia hosts almost two million Venezuelan migrants and refugees, with thousands of people entering the country every day through various entry points, legal and illegal, along the border – and during the lockdown in Colombia, both Colombia and Venezuella have closed their shared border in a bid to control the Covid-19 pandemic. Some Venezuelans still made it through, illegally, and some tried to return to Venezuela to escape the increasing infection rates in Colombia.

The Venezuelan influx has added a fresh source of tension in Colombia, a country grappling with a long-running drug trafficking problem, paramilitary groups and the recent demobilisation of thousands of Marxist guerrillas, who laid down their arms after decades of insurgency. This situation has been further aggravated by the pandemic, which has led to Colombia’s most severe recession for at least a century. Venezuelan migrants within Colombia already faced significant obstacles to finding work. Migrant households in work have plummeted from 91% to 20% of households during the lockdown.

The situation is desperate. The Methodist Churches in the UK have partnered with Colombian Methodist Churches and worked tirelessly to offer both emotional support and practical assistance to refugees. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has partnered with the Methodist Church of Colombia to help meet the needs of arriving Venezuelan migrants. Community clubs for children called “A Voice for the Voiceless” have proven particularly successful. These centres spread the word online and in person about available services and government resources, and also deliver basic, nutrient-rich food packages to hungry families. Through children's clubs and parents' meetings, the centres can help to integrate Venezuelan migrants into local communities, in addition to offering practical aid. A second campaign focuses on pregnant women, and women with infants who require maternal and child healthcare services. Methodist health brigades visit pregnant women, infants and children to offer medical care.

Sandra Lopez, Partnership Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean spoke to Yesiss, a woman forced to flee Venezuela with her family three years ago. While many are forced to make the journey by foot, Yesiss considered herself blessed that she, her husband, her parents and four young children could find funds enough to take the bus. She explained that the lack of food forced them to flee from their homeland.  “ Even working hard still was not enough to buy food. No matter how much you worked hard, the money was not enough.” 

In Colombia both Yassis and her husband have found work and can once more feed their children. Although it was difficult to abandon their home and extended family, everything she and her children have ever known, and she has met anti-migrant sentiment and other barriers in Colombia, she speaks of the “little angels that God puts on the road”, and in particular, the kindness and support she has met at her local Methodist Church. The clubs and activities they offer for her children have proven a blessing for her entire family. “Even through quarantine the teacher is sending us activities on the phone.  I highly recommend it to everyone, I’ll say, take your children to the club.  Without knowing that all of this was going to happen the help that they are giving us makes a difference. Since the beginning the teacher was very sensitive to the children. I tell everybody about the church's club where my children go!”

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