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Coronavirus: the closure of the Colombian border and Venezuelan migration

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The global pandemic of COVID–19 has flooded our new screens in the past weeks as cases continue to grow around the world, but how will the current inability to contain the spread of the virus impact migration and displaced populations worldwide?

The worryingly disproportionate and devastating effect of coronavirus on migrant populations has already been expressed by many NGOs who have raised concern over the current pandemic. The majority of migrant populations worldwide are hosted in lower income countries, often lacking efficient and safe sanitation infrastructure such as the overcrowded Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh which are already at full capacity and therefore at great risk in the face of the virus. It is therefore important that research efforts and measures to address the needs of these populations are made as the pandemic continues in the coming weeks.

BORDER CLOSURES

The lack of good sanitation, space to isolate and access to medical care puts thousands of refugees worldwide at risk. Also, whilst in Europe COVID-19 has been weaponised for political clout by those proposing to close borders to migrants despite there being no evidence of any cases actually being traced to migrant arrivals. Meanwhile, in South America news last week broke that Colombia was taking preventative measures to tackle the virus by closing its borders, which also sparked fear amongst many Venezuelans who are extremely reliant on their Colombian neighbours due to economic collapse in Venezuela. The announcement also raised concerns that cases of xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants in connection to the virus may also increase as we have unfortunately seen elsewhere during this pandemic.

Brazil, as well as Argentina and Paraguay, have also since announced they too would be partially closing their border with Venezuela as a result of the coronavirus. However, until now, unlike other South American nations, Colombia has maintained an open border policy with Venezuela, welcoming 1.7 million of the 4.8 million Venezuelan migrants who have fled the country since 2015 – making it the largest host country of Venezuelan migrants worldwide. The recent decision to restrict flow into the country has temporarily altered this dynamic.

Thousands of Venezuelans travel to Colombia for medical care due to the collapse of Venezuela’s own healthcare system as a result of its unprecedented levels of hyperinflation resulting in economic crisis. However, following the recent border closure many Venezuelans have been left stranded on both sides of the border with those who cross into Colombia for the day to buy supplies or access services now temporarily separated from their families at home.

Furthermore, despite Venezuela restricting travel and implementing a nationwide quarantine, the desperation and sense of urgency to leave the country amongst many Venezuelans continues. Therefore, despite the new regulations, as Colombia’s border is vast – 1,380 miles long – and therefore impossible to be monitored in its entirety, irregular border crossings will undoubtedly continue. However, the fear now is that the closures will force more migrants to use informal crossings or “tronchas” which are known to be dangerous and lined with armed groups ready to exploit vulnerable Venezuelan migrants attempting to avoid Colombia’s border control police.

HEALTHCARE IN VENEZUELA

Although there have currently been no recorded fatalities in either country, both Colombia and Venezuela do have cases of the virus which raises questions about how the healthcare infrastructure in both countries will now cope with this additional strain.

Due to impossible living and working conditions in Venezuela many medical professionals have left the country in the past few years to work in neighbouring countries. With the lack of doctors, medicine and medical equipment Venezuela’s healthcare system is currently not prepared to deal with simple procedures, let alone the spread of COVID-19 which, as we have witnessed, even countries with well-funded healthcare systems are struggling to contain. As evidence of this, the health ministry in Venezuela has not issued its epidemiological bulletins since the end of 2016 with experts saying the country currently completely lacks the facilities to even test samples for the virus.

LIFE IN COLOMBIA

The poor medical infrastructure in Venezuela, as well high levels of food insecurity are both worrying factors in the face of the virus. However, although the result of economic insecurity in Venezuela has led to an ongoing exodus of migrants to neighbouring Colombia, Colombia’s healthcare system has now also been stretched to its full capacity as the country currently has an average of 30,000 crossings from Venezuela every day along this border.

Therefore, although widespread fear surrounding COVID-19 is likely to drive many to take the potentially dangerous migration journey to Colombia due to their inability to be tested or treated in Venezuela, the alternatives available for them upon arrival in Colombia are often not what many hoped for with limited access to emergency healthcare.

For many, the reality of life in Colombia is very challenging with thousands of Venezuelan migrants living on the streets across the country. For these individuals recommended precautions in light of COVID-19, such as good sanitation and self-isolation, are somewhat implausible and unrealistic.

Many Venezuelans also rely on begging as their primary source of income whilst in Colombia and, with the state encouraging social-distancing and isolation, their economic situation has again been disrupted with increasingly fewer people on the streets. Indeed, quarantine for migrants in Colombia and those still within Venezuela appears to be a double edged sword, whereby if one opts to stay at home and protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19, they risk losing out on the daily income on which they rely to survive.

In addition to the border closure, Colombia has also banned gatherings of over 50 people, forcing the large kitchens serving meals to Venezuelan migrants to close. These restrictions have also limited the access of NGO’s working in the region to provide support to those seeking their services.

CONCLUSION

The spread of coronavirus brings with it an array of new challenges and hardships for Venezuelans at home and in Colombia with both countries lacking the sufficient medical support infrastructure to cope with an increase in cases whilst sustaining healthcare for everyday patients. In coming weeks, greater support and funding from the International Community will be needed in this context and, of course, for other vulnerable refugee populations across the world in order to prevent catastrophic outcomes from COVID-19.

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