INTERSOS has launched a new humanitarian mission at the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The project focuses on the protection of the most vulnerable and their access to health care, and is developed by INTERSOS in collaboration with CISP (International Committee for the Development of Peoples), which has been present in the area for a long time.
They call them “caminantes”. Perhaps this is a more human and tangible word to describe the daily pain of those who were forced to leave their homes, driven by hunger and by the fear of losing their future.
Francesca Matarazzi, INTERSOS Emergency Coordinator, is currently in Cucuta, at the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The image of these people on the road has become the usual scenario of one of the most serious and, unfortunately, least funded humanitarian crises of 2019. Here, INTERSOS started a new mission in the summer of 2019, focused on protection and access to medical care.
“You see them walking every day – Francesca tells us – You can follow them for days, from one stage of their journey to another, restless. Families with young children. The elders. They all walk. They walk without shoes. They walk with burnt skin. They wear summer clothes, heading towards the cold of Bogota and of the Andes”.
Although over 4 million Venezuelans have left the country, a peak in the flow of migrants and refugees has been registered again in the summer of 2019. They are fleeing a country bent by an economic crisis which has rolled the clock back to decades. They are fleeing the wild inflation, the lack of primary goods and the collapse of public services.
In Venezuela, between December 2018 and April 2019 the prices of basic products increased by over 1000%.Many people cannot afford to buy food, although it is still available in the markets. The diet is impoverished, to the point of hunger. At current market prices, the average salary (15 thousand bolivars) allows individuals to purchase roughly 3 loaves of bread.
There is no electricity or fuel. The health system is collapsing. Many doctors have left the country. The lack of personnel, together with the lack of medicines and equipment, led to the suspension of activities and the closure of hospital wards. Vaccination and health prophylaxis programs have collapsed.
Between 2008 and 2015, only one case of measles was recorded (in 2012), whereas since June 2017 over 9,300 cases were reported, of which over 6,200 have been confirmed. According to the World Health Organization, malaria cases have steadily increased in recent years from less than 36,000 in 2009 to over 414,000 in 2017. The latest official statistics published by the Venezuelan Ministry of Health stated that in 2016 maternal mortality has increased by 65% and infant mortality has increased by 30% in just one year.
Today, INTERSOS operators are active in the governatorates of Norte de Santander and Arauca of Colombia in collaboration with Cisp (International Committee for the Development of Peoples). They support protection activities aimed at Venezuelan refugees, “caminantes”, internally displaced people and Colombian returnees (many Colombians, victims of armed conflict, fled to Venezuela over the years). In Venezuela, meanwhile, they are active in the State of Tachira and in the city of San Cristobal in support of a project of access to basic medical care through mobile teams.
In Colombia’s border area, migrants and refugees find shelter in buildings, often through collective rents in overcrowded housing, and in informal settlements, often together with internally displaced persons and returnees. “Living conditions are extremely precarious in terms of hygiene and security. Unfortunately, the risk of being exposed to abuse is very high – says Francesca – even if there are no official statistics. Notably, the risk of child labor exploitation and of sexual exploitation is high, especially among those who are undocumented, and therefore more endangered”. All those pitfalls of a day-to-day existence add up to the trauma of loss and to the journey and affect the psychology of each refugee.
“Although the crisis in Venezuela attracts constant attention for its political developments, humanitarian needs are largely forgotten, with funding, compared to recorded needs, of less than 30%. There is so much to do to protect the life and dignity of people and we have chosen to be, once again, in the front line “. That is why INTERSOS has chosen to be there.