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No suitcases for New Year's Eve in Venezuela
Suitcases used to be part of a New Year's Eve ritual in Venezuela, but now they are a symbol of the migration crisis tearing families apart
New Year’s Eve in Venezuela used to be celebrated with various rituals: grapes and lentils, yellow underwear, a handful of money, and a suitcase taken around the block after midnight to invite opportunities for travel.
But Venezuelans no longer celebrate the end of the year with suitcases.
For those who remain in the country, they are now a symbol of sadness and family separation.
For those driven from Venezuela by its political, social and economic crisis, they are a painful reality.
Millions on the move
Since 2016, over four million Venezuelans have left their country to escape violence and insecurity, as well as a lack of food, medicines and essential services.
Of these, some 1.6 million men, women and children have crossed the border into Colombia, a country that does not have the resources to cope with the massive influx of migrants seeking safety and stability.
This figure underestimates the real dimensions of the migration crisis since many people do not register with the authorities due to a lack of access to documentation.
Additionally, between 25 and 75 percent of people enter Colombia by irregular border crossings, making it difficult to count them.
Migrants’ situation “dire”
This migration represents the second largest population movement in the world.
Yet the dire situation of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers is largely being ignored by the international community and the humanitarian response remains severely limited, particularly in rural areas affected by armed conflict and criminal dynamics.
Most Venezuelans leave a distressing situation in their home country but they do not reach a safe place on the other side of the border.
"They abuse you, they grab your breasts... they are violent"
Many migrants sleep on the streets on arrival, then settle in slums or crowded houses. Poor living conditions and lack of access to water and sanitation have a direct impact on their health.
They risk being recruited by armed groups or for the cultivation of illicit crops, or forced into prostitution. They suffer discrimination and sexual violence.
MSF on the ground
MSF has been providing basic healthcare and psychological services to Venezuelan migrants in Colombia since the end of 2018.
In that time, our teams have conducted more than 50,000 medical consultations across our projects in the border departments of La Guajira, Norte de Santander and Arauca.
Although this number does not reflect the magnitude of the situation, it indicates the enormous difficulties migrants face in accessing healthcare, food and housing.
As well as providing medical aid, our teams also bear witness to what they hear and see on the ground. These are their stories.
Elías (not his real name) is 51-years-old. Dark glasses protect his eyes, which are affected by diabetic retinopathy, a condition that impairs his vision.
He arrived in Tame, Arauca, 15 days ago with his suitcase, hoping to be reunited with his daughters and get the dialysis he needs.
"In Venezuela, medical tests are expensive, everything is dollarized and supplies are missing,” says Elias. “Machines don’t work properly; they break down and are no longer repaired. Medical and technical staff have also left the country."
Elías has come to MSF’s clinic in Tame to find out how he can access dialysis. MSF provides basic healthcare and psychological services in Tame, as well as information.
Colombia only guarantees Venezuelans emergency healthcare and does not treat patients with chronic diseases.
Elías’ only solution would be to request asylum for disability. And that would take time.
“At least here at MSF they have examined me and told me that I am stable,” says Elías, who was a merchant in his country.
He is accompanied by his youngest daughter, one of three in Colombia, aged 17, 19 and 24. If he is granted refugee status, Elías will not be able to return to Venezuela, where his eldest daughter still lives.
"We want to be together," he says, breaking down. His daughter, moved by his tears, reassures him that they will be OK, that she sells coffee on the streets.
Poorly paid and vulnerable
Peddling coffee, ice cream or fruit, working on farms or construction sites, begging or rummaging through trash for materials to sell are the limited and poorly paid occupations on offer to Venezuelans in Tame.
But for father-of-three Juan Marcos (not his real name), there was no other option.
“My daughter was dying of malnutrition. Before I let a child die of malnutrition in Venezuela, I would a thousand times rather bring her here,” he says.
In Yaracuy, Juan was a battery mechanic. In Tame, he recycles garbage.
His daughter is better although she has been treated by MSF for skin rashes caused by sleeping on the street.
Dire need and a lack of employment force many Venezuelan women into sex work.
Victoria (not her real name) is from Valencia, the capital of Carabobo State. The 21-year-old was convinced to leave Venezuela and engage in prostitution in Colombia to provide for her family.
Eight people, including her two children, depend on Victoria's earnings in La Carrampla, a designated “tolerance zone” for brothels in Saravena, Arauca.
“They told me that it was possible to live well here, to eat well, that you could send money. But I didn't know how difficult it was,” she explains.
"They abuse you, they grab your breasts... they are violent."
Then Victoria fell ill. Suffering from a fever and vomiting, her weight dropped from 70 to 45 kilograms.
Victoria has left La Carrampla and for the moment, doesn’t work at all. She lives with her new partner and is distressed because she can no longer send the same amount of money to her family in Venezuela.
Victoria came to MSF because of her physical illness and continues to receive psychological support.
MSF has dedicated several days to caring for the area’s sex workers, the vast majority of whom are Venezuelan.
Jesus (not his real name) also lives in Saravena.
The 27-year-old was diagnosed with HIV five years ago but stopped his treatment when he left Venezuela.
He has managed to find the pills he needs on the black market and goes to MSF’s mobile clinic for check-ups, as well as psychological support for the abuse he has suffered throughout his life.
“I would like to have money right now to return for treatment in Venezuela, although I don't know if I’ve been taken off the register or if there would be medication. Then I would return to Colombia,” says Jesus.
“Venezuela is just fading, disappearing.”
Venezuelans living with HIV in Colombia have only two places to go for free treatment and transfers are often long and costly.
In the coming weeks, MSF will begin providing HIV treatment in Tibú and Tame after reaching an agreement with Aids Health Care Foundation Colombia.
Healthcare access limited
In Colombia, healthcare offered to migrants by the public system is limited to emergencies, births and vaccinations. But the needs of newly arrived Venezuelans far exceed these services.
Patients with chronic diseases require continuous treatment but their referrals to other levels of care are not assured, while mental health services are nonexistent.
Of serious concern is the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion care.
These are in high demand among Venezuelan migrant women, however, restrictions on funding from the US prevent them from accessing abortion-related activities, including counselling and information on their reproductive choices.
As a result, many organisations in Colombia have curtailed services to avoid losing vital US funding or because of a lack of alternative funding. Some have been forced to shut down altogether.
A call to action
MSF is calling for a greater commitment from the international community to address this humanitarian crisis.
We are facing an exodus of more than 4.7 million people from Venezuela, around one-third of whom have settled in Colombia, a country that does not have the resources to cope properly.
More financial aid must be provided without conditions to support a stable and coherent response and to end the suffering of Venezuelan men, women and children.