'What I Saw Is A Refugee Crisis': WLRN Reporter On His Visit To The Venezuelan-Colombian Border

May 7, 2018

The Venezuelan refugee crisis is overwhelming South American countries—especially Colombia.

 

Last Friday, the U.N. had to suspend a new food stamp program for Venezuelans in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta because the crowds were simply too large and chaotic.


WLRN's Tim Padgett just returned from Cúcuta, in the border between Venezuela and Colombia. WLRN's Luis Hernandez talked to him on Sundial about the growing humanitarian crisis there: 

WLRN: Remind us of the magnitude of this crisis that you saw up close.

PADGETT: You've got about 20 to 30,000 people escaping Venezuela, coming over the border into the Colombian city of Cúcuta, everyday. And up to a quarter of those people actually stay there to try to start a new life because things are so horrifically bad back in Venezuela in terms of the economic collapse that has created a humanitarian crisis where people have little if any food, little if any medicine and other basic goods. 

You posted a photo on social media over the weekend of a Venezuelan refugee mother and her infant son in complete despair as they waited in line. You said that it summed up your reporting trip.

 

That image I took was outside of one of the evangelical churches near the airport in Cúcuta, which is one of the sites being used by the U.N. World Food Program to distribute these so-called "bonos,"  essentially food stamps, that Venezuelan refugees can use to get food at area supermarkets and things of that nature. And this mother, her name was Yamira, was just sitting out there under this hot baking noontime sun [with] her little one-year-old infant son. They were just sitting there in this impossibly long line with hundreds if not thousands of other Venezuelan refugees. She seemed to be collapsing there and it seemed to sum up both the destitution I was seeing that characterizes these Venezuelan refugees coming over but also the sense of hopelessness. You're talking about one of the worst economic collapses in South American history but also one of the worst refugee crises in Venezuelan history.

We talked last week and you said that the U.N. had trouble not just confronting the crisis but deciding what to call it. So if what you saw is a refugee crisis, then what are they saying it is?

They're still trying to decide. U.N. officials confided to us last week that they really have no historical reference point for this. It's not quite at the level where they can officially call it a refugee crisis. It's not like the Syrian crisis where you've got refugees pouring out because their lives are in danger because of war and bombardment. But by the same token it's far more severe than just your normal economic migrant situation. You know, people fleeing in an economic emergency they really don't know what to call it. They've been struggling for months to figure out what it is. In my book, what I saw last week is a refugee crisis.

The U.N. is calling on the international community to raise about 50 million dollars for Venezuelan refugees but it's only got about a third of that. Now the U.N. has told WLRN that it's turning to some creative fundraising. What does that mean?

They're turning more to the private sector, private citizens around the world. I think they're going to start tapping into the internet and they're going to set up websites where private donors like you and me and private companies can start contributing, can start raising funds for these Venezuelan refugees to help fill that aid shortfall gap that we're seeing. That food stamp program was one of the first that they've been able to set up for Venezuelan refugees with what resources they've been able to raise so far. But now we can all go online apparently this summer and start contributing ourselves.

In this Feb. 23, 2018 photo, a volunteer at the "Divina Providencia" migrant shelter distributes lunch to Venezuelan migrants, in Cucuta, Colombia. The food is cooked in several large vats and the diocese says it offers an average of 1000 meals a day.
Credit Associated Press

This crisis is causing a lot of tension between the Venezuelan refugees and Colombians. You said you saw a lot of that last week but you also saw a lot of inspiring stories too.

There is a lot of tension. Part of the reason the food stamp program was shut down last week was because poor Colombians themselves are angry at seeing all these Venezuelan refugees get social benefits when they come in. And so you're seeing a lot of resentment, a lot of anti-immigration resentment building in Colombia, which could help the conservative candidate in this month's presidential election get elected by the way.

But as you said I did see inspiring stories. I spent an evening with a woman who about 15 years ago was forced to leave Colombia by the Civil War which was still raging there. She and her husband and kids, they owned a small dairy farm there near the border and both the guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries wanted to essentially steal it from them. But worse than that, they wanted to recruit her 13-year-old son to become a guerrilla or a paramilitary himself. So they fled Colombia at that time and went into Venezuela to become essentially refugees and they were welcomed, they were treated very well. And then Venezuela's economic situation went south. She and her family came back to Cúcuta, Colombia and now she runs a shelter there for Venezuelan refugees as if she said thank you to Venezuela for the treatment she received when she herself was a refugee.

What most do you want people here in the U.S. to know about the situation there?

I want our audience to know that particularly in South Florida this is a refugee situation because we have the largest Venezuelan expat community here in the United States, we have the largest Colombian expat community here in the United States. South Florida more than any other place in America has a connection to this humanitarian crisis. And I really think we need to start taking more notice of it, start contributing to alleviating it in any way we can.