Solidarités International and Première Urgence Internationale are helping to mitigate the urgent risks faced by Venezuelan refugees and migrants in North Santander and Santander, Colombia, due to the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis is particularly affecting the health, hygiene and food security of this population. Through the support of the Start Fund COVID-19, the two INGOs and their local partners Fundación Entre Dos Tierras and Red Humanitaria, are joining forces to meet the critical food and hygiene needs of this vulnerable population.
A crisis within a crisis
The continued deterioration of living conditions in Venezuela had already led to a regional crisis since 2013, with millions of migrants and refugees fleeing a collapsing economy, poverty, food and medicine shortages, and political instability. Colombia now hosts nearly 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees, the most in the region, with many having embarked on a long journey on foot to different cities in the country. Bucaramanga is at the centre of this migratory route, with 38,000 migrants living for various durations in the city, even though access to basic goods and services remains very limited.
Beginning in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spread quickly and exponentially throughout the world, and entered Colombia in March 2020. The Colombian government has since taken continually increasing measures to contain the virus, including shutting down the border (including that with Venezuela), installing curfews and travel restrictions, and imposing social distancing rules on gatherings.
This crisis had, and is continuing to have, very challenging impacts in North Santander and Santander, and specifically on the migrant route. It is assessed that the route is now restricted and the vast majority of support is currently suspended. There is evidence of migrants and refugees losing all sources of income, being evicted due to being unable to afford rent, significant increases in homelessness, and urgent needs for basic goods and services such as food and hygiene supplies. This has led to hundreds of Venezuelans congregating in parks and other public areas in Bucaramanga, with little to no support. The deteriorating situation raises fears around exacerbating xenophobia, as Alba Pereira, Director of the Entre dos Tierras foundation explains: “If we do not provide clear, effective and real answers, there is a risk of social explosions, both on the part of the host communities and of the migrants themselves.”
Adrian Fleming, Country Director at Première Urgence Internationale says: “In stark proof of the deteriorating conditions and insufficient response, numerous Venezuelans are actually seeking to return to the border, with approximately 800 refugee and migrants currently congregating in parks of Bucaramanga each day to seek transport or to begin the arduous 7-day walk back”. The rare phenomenon of mass returns of a vulnerable population to a home country has created significant and unique challenges, especially during a pandemic where movement is formally restricted. “The emergency is today, the needs are punctual and everyone knows them,” adds Alba Pereira.
An Urgent Response
Solidarités International and Première Urgence Internationale, through their local partners Fundación Entre dos Tierras and Red Humanitaria, are joining forces to meet the food needs of these vulnerable populations in Bucaramanga and along the migrant route to the Venezuelan border. Adrian Fleming explains “the Solidarités International and Première Urgence Internationale consortium is targeting the evicted, homeless or returnees as they are considered as the most vulnerable people to be exposed to the virus and those with the least resources in which to protect themselves or deal with consequences of becoming infected.”
With the support of the Start Fund COVID-19, the consortium is responding with an emergency food and hygiene program. This includes delivery of monthly food and hygiene kits to the most vulnerable households, mobile kits to those planning to or currently returning to Venezuela, and the preparation and distribution of 750 hot meals a day (or 22,500 meals per month) in accordance with preventive measures against the virus. “We will start distributing hot meals in very isolated areas, giving priority to children under the age of six" says Alba Pereira.
Although the scale of the current COVID-19 crisis makes it impossible to accurately predict a long-term scenario, this emergency response is designed to meet the most essential needs during a critical period of the pandemic. Through this response, it allows some respite to the most negative impacts of the crisis on members of an already highly vulnerable migrant and refugee population in Colombia.