Military actions, which began ten days ago on the Venezuelan side of Apure, are still ongoing and many families are fleeing the country, with the aim of reaching Colombia. The Venezuelan crisis has so far produced more refugees than the Syrian one, but nobody talks about it
Since March 21, the Colombian-Venezuelan border, on the side of La Victoria (Apure state, Venezuela), has been the scene of armed clashes between the Venezuelan military forces of the FANB (National Bolivarian Air Forces of Venezuela) and armed dissident Colombian FARC groups.
The clashes have generated a massive displacement of people seeking refuge and protection from Venezuela to Colombia. Around 4,700 people have been displaced to date, but the numbers are still growing. Among them, around 1,700 are children and adolescents and 136 are pregnant women. The number of civilians remaining in the areas affected by military operations is not known but the latest census data suggest that 5,000 people are currently present in these areas. Humanitarian access to La Victoria is still not guaranteed.
INTERSOS provides humanitarian assistance to migrants and displaced people
INTERSOS humanitarian workers – who have been working in the department of Arauca and in the state of Apure for two years, thanks to the collaboration with CISP, to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants and displaced people in transit in the area – conducted a first assessment of the urgent needs in collaboration with CISP: medicines as well as access to health services, access to water and sanitation are considered as priorities at the moment among displaced people, who are now living in the different informal settlements mainly in the urban area of Rivera.
The situation is also aggravated by COVID-19: four people have already been tested positive, and “people are concerned that there will be a further increase in the number of infections given the poor protection measures and the lack of mass testing”. Health facilities are not prepared to deal with any epidemiological emergency.
Military operations cause massive movements of people
“The military operation that began 10 days ago is unfortunately going on in the area of La Victoria, the town opposite to Arauquita, across the Arauca river that marks the border between the two countries. The fighting is still ongoing and the Colombian Navy has sent a first contingent to the city of Arauca. The Colombian municipality of Arauquita has informed the national government that it does not have the capacity to cope with an emergency of this magnitude,” says Simona Canova, INTERSOS Head of Mission, now on site. “Moreover, as the clashes are still ongoing, new movements may occur in the coming days and more people are expected to arrive in Arauquita, Saravena and other neighbouring municipalities. The humanitarian response is complicated by the remote and very dispersed location of the many places where new arrivals are concentrating“.
“River transportation at ‘Las Canoas’ border crossing, between Arauquita and La Victoria, thus between Colombia and Venezuela, has been suspended until further notice; the closest official crossing to La Victoria, the José Antonio Páez International Bridge, is 100 km from the municipality,” continues Simona Canova. “For this reason, the vast majority of people cross the border with Colombia through multiple identified informal crossings, through the Arauca River and through other minor tributaries. Reports of people moving at night to avoid controls have been made, perhaps because of the greater ease of crossing the river in a canoe, despite the physical risks involved“.
“The effects of military operations on the civilian population and the participation of Venezuelan military forces represent a further phase in the crisis at the Colombia-Venezuela border, where the presence of dissidents on Venezuelan territory becomes increasingly evident. They have the ability to maintain territorial control and compete for revenues from illegal activities such as drug trafficking, illicit crops and human trafficking and they resist to a constant offensive” says Marcelo Garcia Dalla Costa, head of INTERSOS Emergency Unit.
The numbers of the Venezuelan crisis remind us of the Syrian one
“The Venezuelan crisis is ignored by most of the media” Garcia Dalla Costa points out, “even though in the last three years it has produced a number of refugees – around 5 million – that equals the number of Syrian refugees in ten years of conflict. This is the largest exodus from Venezuela since the beginning of the year and the numbers are unfortunately destined to grow“.
INTERSOS, which has been the area for two years, is providing humanitarian aid to the fleeing population, in coordination with UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and GIFMM, the Regional Coordination Group on Mixed Migratory Flows. The response elaborated by INTERSOS in consortium with CISP and thanks to the support of ECHO and SV (Stichting Vluchteling), foresees an action aimed at providing assistance to the population in need of protection located in the reception points and, concretely, includes the direct distribution of food, hygiene kits, awnings, mosquito nets, material support for the purchase of basic necessities, recreational kits for children and adolescents and psychological and legal support.