The chaos spreading into Colombia from Venezuela is unmistakable on the crowded highway that spans the countries’ 2,200km border. On the Venezuelan side pick-up trucks crammed with entire families jostle for position as cars try to weave through the traffic. Motorcycle riders line up in the heat waiting for passengers. Roadside vendors hawk plastic bottles filled with contraband gasoline. Litter is strewn everywhere.
“If there were a hell on earth, it would look like Paraguachón,” says an aid worker, gesturing towards the heaving mass of people and vehicles streaming across the border.
Long popular with smugglers, Paraguachón is now one of the main exits for Venezuelans fleeing hunger, disease and repression. The scale of the exodus has far exceeded initial expectations, propelled by President Nicolás Maduro’s mismanaged socialist revolution which has seen the oil-based economy collapse into hyperinflation.
Now Colombia is struggling to cope with the influx.
“Two years ago the worry was that the Maduro regime would stay in place, the economy would tank even more, healthcare would collapse and more and more Venezuelans would leave,” says Shannon K O’Neil, vice-president at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York. “The worst-case scenario has happened.”
Nearly 5m Venezuelans have left since 2015 — about 15 per cent of the population — and another million are expected to depart this year. That could make the crisis the world’s biggest refugee emergency, surpassing Syria. Unlike other humanitarian crises, it is a disaster caused not by war or natural disaster but by misrule on a grand scale.
It is “the world’s largest forced migration crisis you have never heard of”, says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, highlighting the relative lack of attention Venezuela has received.
In the first four years of the crisis, Venezuelan refugees received less than a twelfth of the funding given to Syrians escaping their conflict over the same time period, according to the Brookings Institution.
The shape of the crisis is changing. Wealthier and better-educated Venezuelans were the first to leave, many heading for the US or Spain. Then middle-class professionals departed for nearby Latin American nations with good employment prospects. Now, aid workers say, the refugees are poorer, older, sicker and more vulnerable.
“We didn’t want to leave Venezuela,” says Nellyisa Lopez Fuenmayor, 50, who was sheltering with her family at a UNHCR camp in the Maicao area. “But what we earned there was not enough to feed our children. Here we can eat three times a day. There we could only afford breakfast.”
More than 1.6m Venezuelans are now living in Colombia — more than 3 per cent of its population — and the number is rising by around 3,000 a day, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR figures, and those of the Colombian authorities are thought to underestimate the problem because of the scale of illegal migration.
This influx adds 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.
Further south, Peru has over 860,000 Venezuelan refugees, while Ecuador and Chile have more than 370,000 each. Another 220,000 are in Brazil and more than 100,000 in the Caribbean islands.
Official data show that more than 11,000 Venezuelans a month crossed the border on average last year, but the official Colombian immigration checkpoint was moved from the centre of the road a few months ago after being caught in crossfire during a gun battle between rival gangs, aid workers say.
“It’s one of the most chaotic and uncontrolled borders I have ever seen,” says Federico Sersale, head of the UNHCR’s office for the region. “Most people crossing here don’t have passports and most don’t enter through the official crossing points.”
The Colombian frontier with Venezuela is highly porous, passing through jungle, desert and mountains. There are ample opportunities for illegal crossing, starting close to the main highway. To one side of it is a primitive wooden stake fence, behind which lurk a few dilapidated 1980s American cars with Venezuelan number plates. A couple of blocks in the other direction, a rope crossing guarded by an attendant marks the start of another dirt track. Both are trochas, unofficial trails through bushland that cross the border.
Lacking passports, and unwilling to pay the hefty bribes needed to secure them, many Venezuelans use smugglers to cross — an often perilous journey.
“The National Guard [part of Venezuela’s armed forces] and the criminals take money off you,” says Emmanuel Pirela, 28, who used the trails three months ago with his wife and five-year-old son. “The border is crazy. If you don’t pay, they shoot you.”
Once across, arrivals deemed to be in greatest need are housed and fed in a purpose-built UNHCR “integrated assistance centre” near Maicao for 30 days while they receive medical and psychological treatment and legal advice.
Between 60,000 and 80,000 Venezuelans are estimated to be living in or around Maicao, a city with a pre-crisis population of 160,000 located in La Guajira, Colombia’s second-poorest province. The UNHCR transit camp has space for just 600 people a month, though that will double when an extension is completed in a few months’ time.
Refugees with friends or relatives already in Colombia may have somewhere to go. Many others end up in primitive squatter camps on the fringes of Maicao, like Bendición de Dios (Blessing of God), a stretch of occupied wasteland where 575 refugees eke out a living.
Margarita del Carmen Palmán, 40, lives with her husband and three children in a shack made of plastic sheeting, which flaps loudly in the howling winds that blow fine sand everywhere. The family’s only visible possessions are clothes, a few towels and a hammock.
“There is no work in Venezuela,” she explains. “We had to go scavenging each day for food to feed the children. Sometimes we found it, sometimes we didn’t.” Her husband now scrapes a living selling eggs in Maicao. Ms Palmán says his daily takings can be as low as 10,000 Colombian pesos ($3), half of which is spent on buying fresh stock.
Colombia and other Latin American host nations have won widespread praise from refugee agencies for their generous response to the crisis. But as the numbers of Venezuelans keep rising and the costs mount, the open-door policy is becoming harder to sustain.
Colombia’s finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla says estimates of the additional annual cost of educating, housing and ministering to the health needs of Venezuelan migrants range between 0.4 per cent and 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product, while adding that research suggests there would be a longer-term benefit to economic growth.
“National budgets are exhausted and institutional capacity is completely overwhelmed by the crisis,” says Eduardo Stein, the UNHCR’s joint special representative for Venezuelan migrants and refugees. “This situation continues to worsen as more people arrive.”
A UN-led appeal last year for $738m in aid for Venezuelan refugees was only 52 per cent funded. There is no indication that this year’s far more demanding target of $1.35bn will fare any better.
Brookings estimated that there could be as many as 6.5m Venezuelans living outside the country by the end of this year. “The numbers could be significantly higher if the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela continues to worsen, reaching over 8m,” it said in a recent paper.
Most of the aid to Venezuelan refugees has come from the US ($473m), with the EU contributing €170m since 2018 plus another €150m from member states. The UK has provided £44.5m of aid to help Venezuelan refugees, against £206.5m committed this year alone in bilateral aid to Syria.
In a sign of hardening attitudes, Peru, Ecuador and Chile imposed visa restrictions on Venezuelans last year, leading many to enter these countries illegally and a larger proportion to remain in Colombia.
As the financial and social costs mount, there are signs that public opinion is starting to turn. A Gallup poll in December found that most Colombians have shifted from welcoming migrants to regarding them as a problem. Asked for their impression of the Venezuelan arrivals, 69 per cent said it was unfavourable.
Maicao’s newly elected mayor Mohammed Dasuki claims a minority of Venezuelan criminals spread vice and violent crime. “Colombians and people from Maicao respect women and children,” he says. “Venezuelans don’t respect them.”
Mr Dasuki accused refugees of undercutting locals in the job market by working for less money and of bringing prostitution to his city “not just of women but also of homosexuals”.
Luis Eduardo Castro, the mayor of Yopal in the sparsely populated, oil-rich eastern Colombian province of Casanare, which is sheltering nearly 20,000 Venezuelans, has started to deport back to Venezuela migrants he accuses of breaking the law and has threatened to fine drivers who give lifts to refugees.
A poster campaign in Yopal urges locals not to hand out money to Venezuelans with the slogan: “Your help is not helping”.
Such instances of xenophobia, however, are so far seen as isolated. Aid workers and refugee experts point out that Venezuela’s hosting of thousands of Colombians during the oil boom years has created a deep reservoir of goodwill towards the country.
The Colombian government is trying to legalise as many of the new arrivals as possible, giving them permission to work, plus full access to medical and educational services.
The strategy worked well in the first years of the exodus but is becoming more difficult to sustain.
“The profile of the Venezuelans entering is more and more vulnerable every day,” says the UNHCR’s Mr Sersale. “They are more elderly, they have more disabilities and suffer from more chronic diseases. Their possible integration is limited.”
Gabriel Lugo, 32, is one of the estimated 328,000 Venezuelans living in the Colombian capital Bogotá. He sells chocolate bars on the buses for a small profit. In a 15-hour day, he tries to make 30,000 pesos ($9) to cover the cost of a hostel for himself, his younger sister and his two young daughters.
“There are bad people in Colombia but that’s the same everywhere,” he says of the attitudes he has encountered. “Sometimes people insult you . . . but nothing too bad has happened to me personally. Sometimes people give us food even if we don’t ask for it.”
No one knows how long the country’s social fabric can hold as the Venezuelans continue to arrive in their thousands. “Colombia has survived civil wars, paramilitaries, drug trafficking, massive migration flows and it keeps going,” says Mr Selee from the Migration Policy Institute. “I don’t think this is what will blow up Colombia but it is another element in what is already an unstable mix.”
However, the Venezuelan exodus may have a more permanent effect on a continent which has long been a source of northward migration to the US and Europe but has experienced relatively little movement between countries.
“Latin America is changing profoundly as a result of this migration crisis,” says the UNHCR’s Mr Stein.
The first migrants who left Venezuela in the early 2000s when Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro’s predecessor, was preaching revolution have built new lives in their adopted countries.
That trend is personified by people like Liliana López, 50, who left Venezuela in 2007 and settled six years later in Chile, where she bought a flat and started a business selling snack foods to offices.
“It’s going to take years for Venezuela to recover and at my age, I don’t think I’m going to see the changes that would convince me to return,” she says. “We need a total clean-up of the country and I don’t see that happening any time soon.”