The coronavirus crisis is forcing hundreds of Venezuelan refugees and migrants to return home, as lockdown measures prevent them from earning a living. More could follow if the international community does not increase its funding to support the Colombian government’s pandemic response.
“Venezuelans that sought refuge in Colombia are losing their financial lifeline because of Covid-19. Hundreds are now returning home from exile and many more could follow as lockdown continues and if aid is not provided,” warned Dominika Arseniuk, Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Colombia.
“We all need to do more to include Venezuelan migrants and refugees living on the fringes in our Covid-19 response planning, or risk more returning to a life of uncertainty.”
Colombia is a haven for vulnerable Venezuelans driven from their home country due to hyperinflation, an economic crisis and violence. Some 1.8 million people have fled across the border since 2015. But a three-week nationwide lockdown in Colombia saw the informal sector where many work grind to a halt. It is plunging families deeper into poverty and prompting an abrupt reversal in migratory flows.
Migrants told NRC staff that despite these challenges they will at least not have to pay rent or utilities in their home country, and will be reunited with family.
"We won't have any way to earn an income because of the virus, otherwise we would not return to our country," a Venezuelan migrant told NRC after receiving a food voucher. “You should extend this support for a long time.”
Many Venezuelans have been working in Colombia’s informal sector, often without social protection or access to the country’s healthcare system. Living hand-to-mouth was a means to survive, but the pandemic’s arrival has made the need to include migrant and refugee communities in social protection measures even higher.
In addition, Colombia’s coronavirus measures have led to aid organisations operating near the Venezuelan border reducing their activities to less than a third, as the number of reported Covid-19 cases increases in the region.
Relief programmes that are still running are vastly underfunded. The UN’s regional aid plan to support Venezuelan refugees launched in November 2019 has received only 3 per cent of requested funds, placing the continuity of lifesaving programmes throughout Latin America and the Caribbean at stake.
“We need to commit to longer-term assistance programmes as we battle the coronavirus threat. We don’t just need soap, medicine and clean water, we need multi-year funds to overcome the Venezuela refugee and migrant crisis,” said Arseniuk.
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