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‘They rape you, they rob you’: Venezuelan refugees fleeing destitution face new dangers across the border

‘They rape you, they rob you’: Venezuelan refugees fleeing destitution face new dangers across the border

Ruely Adriana Gonzalez sits on a thin mattress as her three children lie slumped beside her in the tent, dozing in the afternoon heat.

Outside, kids fly handmade kites between the rows of white tents here in the Colombian desert, a dry plain scattered with green bushes and cacti.

At 37 years of age, Gonzalez has a youthful smile, but her face bears the strain of the long journey to get to this camp in Maicao, a city close to the Venezuelan border, the place she will call home for the next month.

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Gonzalez is one of the millions of Venezuelans who have fled violence, hyperinflation and extreme food and medical shortages in the country.

A former cleaner in the coastal city of Maracaibo, she held out as long as she could. Without a job and unable to buy food, Gonzalez sold ice in the streets until she made enough money for bus tickets to Colombia.

With no connections here, no money and no possessions – just extra clothes for her children – Gonzalez knew coming to Maicao would mean sleeping on the streets until a place in the overcrowded camp became available. 

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A mother washes her baby as she waits for her fast-track humanitarian visa at the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo.

Unicef/Bindra

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Refugee children and youngsters from host communities play at a park in Palabek Refugee settlement, during the mid-morning break. This facility is supported by Unicef with EU financial assistance – it also provides psychosocial support to refugee children as well as a place to play, learn, interact, sing and dance after all the traumatic experiences they may have gone through.

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Ali, two, rests on his father’s chest. His family are Syrian refugees and came to Jordan six years ago. Ali has just received his winter clothing kit from Unicef and its partner Mateen.

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Children enjoy a ride on a homemade ferris wheel during Eid al-Ftr in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They are celebrating the holiday in Balukhali, a Rohingya refugee camp sheltering over 800,000 people. The camp is one of the largest in the world, and is bracing for the onset of the monsoon rains.

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Yulis Rivas, three, draws a picture of her parents in a “Friendly Space” in Cucuta, where Unicef provides learning activities for migrant children and parents from Venezuela.

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A young girl holds her doll in front of her tent at the refugee camp in Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos. This is an overspill area of the camp, known as “the jungle” or “the olive grove”. In 2018, approximately 12,000 refugee and migrant children arrived in Greece by sea.

Unicef/Haviv VII Ph

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Pupils play at Bidibidi refugee settlement in the Yumbe district of Uganda. Their school is supported by Unicef.

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Hundreds of pupils cross the Venezuela-Colombia border at 5am to meet a bus that will take them to school in the Colombian city of Cucuta.

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Ayman, 11 days old, receives his vaccinations in one of the Unicef-supported health clinics in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.

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Pupils sing and play at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, where migrants have fled from South Sudan. The centre is funded by UK aid and Plan International provides positive parenting services, early learning and recovery for children from war-related stress disorders.

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Khalid, 10, receives a measles vaccination in Tabqa city in Raqqa governorate. Khalid was uprooted due to escalating violence near his home, and returned a year ago.

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Syrian refugee children in an informal settlement near Terbol in the Bekaa Valley.

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Daily life at the refugee camp in Moria.

Unicef/Haviv VII Ph

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A baby has checkup in a Colombian medical centre that receives support from Unicef. Every day, about 40 migrant children are vaccinated in this centre.

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Katty Baez helps her one-year-old Alfredo insert the straw into a juice box that was given to them by a stranger. Katty is traveling to Peru with her two children to meet her husband, who has been there for eight months, and does not know that the family is on the way. Katty wants to surprise him, because he has been working hard on a fishing boat and the children miss him. In this area, Unicef Ecuador is supporting the government to ensure access to safe drinking water, sanitation, education and health services.

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Pal Biel Jany, 15, wants to be the future president of South Sudan. He goes to school in Makod primary and secondary school in Tierkidi refugee camp in the Gambella region.

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Syrian refugee children play in Housh al Refka informal settlement in Bekaa Valley.

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Thiago Patania, 18 months old, takes a nap in the Unicef tent next to the Ecuadorian customs office in Rumichaca, while his mother waits in line to complete the immigration procedures for her passport to be stamped. Unicef has set up temporary child-friendly spaces and rest tents, as well as supplying thermal blankets, baby kits, and hygiene kits.

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Twelve-year-old Waibai Buka (centre) skips rope as a friend records a video of her with a computer tablet provided by Unicef at a school in Baigai. Waibai had to flee her village after an attack by Boko Haram. She has not seen her father since the attack and fears he might be dead. Unicef initiated a pilot project in January 2017 called “Connect My School”. Six solar-powered units help provide internet to schools in different parts of Cameroon. Two of the units were installed in schools in Cameroon’s Far North region – one in Minawao refugee camp, the other in Baigai, near the Nigerian border, where some 50 per cent of children have been displaced by Boko Haram-related violence.

Unicef/Prinsloo

1/20 Mexico

A mother washes her baby as she waits for her fast-track humanitarian visa at the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo.

Unicef/Bindra

2/20 Uganda

Refugee children and youngsters from host communities play at a park in Palabek Refugee settlement, during the mid-morning break. This facility is supported by Unicef with EU financial assistance – it also provides psychosocial support to refugee children as well as a place to play, learn, interact, sing and dance after all the traumatic experiences they may have gone through.

Unicef/Nabatanzi

3/20 Jordan

Ali, two, rests on his father’s chest. His family are Syrian refugees and came to Jordan six years ago. Ali has just received his winter clothing kit from Unicef and its partner Mateen.

Unicef/Herwig

4/20 Bangladesh

Children enjoy a ride on a homemade ferris wheel during Eid al-Ftr in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They are celebrating the holiday in Balukhali, a Rohingya refugee camp sheltering over 800,000 people. The camp is one of the largest in the world, and is bracing for the onset of the monsoon rains.

Unicef/Modola

5/20 Colombia

Yulis Rivas, three, draws a picture of her parents in a “Friendly Space” in Cucuta, where Unicef provides learning activities for migrant children and parents from Venezuela.

Unicef/Arcos

6/20 Greece

A young girl holds her doll in front of her tent at the refugee camp in Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos. This is an overspill area of the camp, known as “the jungle” or “the olive grove”. In 2018, approximately 12,000 refugee and migrant children arrived in Greece by sea.

Unicef/Haviv VII Ph

7/20 Uganda

Pupils play at Bidibidi refugee settlement in the Yumbe district of Uganda. Their school is supported by Unicef.

Unicef/Bongyereirwe

8/20 Colombia

Hundreds of pupils cross the Venezuela-Colombia border at 5am to meet a bus that will take them to school in the Colombian city of Cucuta.

Unicef/Arcos

9/20 Jordan

Ayman, 11 days old, receives his vaccinations in one of the Unicef-supported health clinics in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.

Unicef/Herwig

10/20 Ethiopia

Sabirin Nur, 18, is a Somali student volleyball captain at Unicef-supported Melkadida primary school, helping to run sessions for other pupils. Sabirin says: “As a female, many of us face challenges with our parents, like forced marriage or relatives trying to get us married. They want us to go home and be wives.”

Unicef/Ayene

11/20 Uganda

Pupils sing and play at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, where migrants have fled from South Sudan. The centre is funded by UK aid and Plan International provides positive parenting services, early learning and recovery for children from war-related stress disorders.

Unicef/Bongyereirwe

12/20 Syria

Khalid, 10, receives a measles vaccination in Tabqa city in Raqqa governorate. Khalid was uprooted due to escalating violence near his home, and returned a year ago.

Unicef/Souleiman

13/20 Lebanon

Syrian refugee children in an informal settlement near Terbol in the Bekaa Valley.

Unicef/Modola

14/20

Daily life at the refugee camp in Moria.

Unicef/Haviv VII Ph

15/20 Colombia

A baby has checkup in a Colombian medical centre that receives support from Unicef. Every day, about 40 migrant children are vaccinated in this centre.

Unicef/Arcos

16/20 Rumichaca, border of Ecuador with Colombia

Katty Baez helps her one-year-old Alfredo insert the straw into a juice box that was given to them by a stranger. Katty is traveling to Peru with her two children to meet her husband, who has been there for eight months, and does not know that the family is on the way. Katty wants to surprise him, because he has been working hard on a fishing boat and the children miss him. In this area, Unicef Ecuador is supporting the government to ensure access to safe drinking water, sanitation, education and health services.

Unicef/Arcos

17/20 Ethiopia

Pal Biel Jany, 15, wants to be the future president of South Sudan. He goes to school in Makod primary and secondary school in Tierkidi refugee camp in the Gambella region.

Unicef/Mersha

18/20 Lebanon

Syrian refugee children play in Housh al Refka informal settlement in Bekaa Valley.

Unicef/Choufany

19/20 Rumichaca, border of Ecuador with Colombia

Thiago Patania, 18 months old, takes a nap in the Unicef tent next to the Ecuadorian customs office in Rumichaca, while his mother waits in line to complete the immigration procedures for her passport to be stamped. Unicef has set up temporary child-friendly spaces and rest tents, as well as supplying thermal blankets, baby kits, and hygiene kits.

Unicef/Arcos

20/20 Cameroon

Twelve-year-old Waibai Buka (centre) skips rope as a friend records a video of her with a computer tablet provided by Unicef at a school in Baigai. Waibai had to flee her village after an attack by Boko Haram. She has not seen her father since the attack and fears he might be dead. Unicef initiated a pilot project in January 2017 called “Connect My School”. Six solar-powered units help provide internet to schools in different parts of Cameroon. Two of the units were installed in schools in Cameroon’s Far North region – one in Minawao refugee camp, the other in Baigai, near the Nigerian border, where some 50 per cent of children have been displaced by Boko Haram-related violence.

Unicef/Prinsloo

“I knew I had to sleep on the streets here,” she tells The Independent. “It was very hard. I thought a lot about this decision, but I told myself either I do it now or I’ll never do it.” Looking at her children, aged 11, four and two, who lie calmly beside her, she adds: “I had to do it because of them.

“It was terrible, but it was better than being in Venezuela, because there is nothing there.”

Gonzalez and her children spent eight days on the streets. They slept on cardboard outside a supermarket – although she couldn’t sleep. “I was looking at the girls, I couldn’t sleep well, just waiting until I managed to come here,” she says.

They were eventually given a spot at a camp run by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR). For the next four weeks, she and her children will have shelter, security, and access to food and healthcare.

The Integrated Assistance Centre, which opened in March, is the first of its kind in Colombia. With more than 1,500 Venezuelans sleeping on the streets of Maicao, a historically poor city with already strained resources, the local government felt forced to enlist the help of the UNHCR.

It signals a worrying decline for Venezuelans. An estimated 5,000 people continue to cross the border each day. New figures from the United Nations claim that 3.4 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, a figure predicted to rise to 5 million by the end of 2019, making it one of the biggest displacement crises in the world.

Ongoing hyperinflation and recurring blackouts across Venezuela have left people without electricity, water, and unable to withdraw cash from the bank.

Officials say the citizens with the fewest resources are the ones now crossing the border.

“We are seeing more and more vulnerable Venezuelans are arriving,” says Olga Sarrado, UNHCR communications officer. “Around 2018 we saw more single males who had cash with them, so the risks were fewer. Now we see more families, elderly, single women, children.

“People are arriving with no cash, just to settle for the first days and being forced to sleep on the streets, which makes them more vulnerable.”

Maicao sits in the impoverished region of La Guajira, where trafficking networks are known to operate. Closures of formal border points mean migrants have been forced to use dangerous irregular crossings, where they are at the mercy of traffickers and at risk of sexual exploitation or kidnapping.

Katty del Valle Marquez, a 41-year-old single mother, came to the Maicao with her daughter after paying traffickers to get through an irregular border crossing.

“I knew I was going to have to sleep on the streets when I came here, but there was no other option,” says Marquez, now in the camp after a week of sleeping rough. 

“I’ve heard stories of [traffickers] raping girls. They rape you, they rob you. A cousin and friend did this journey, and [the traffickers] took everything, they even took their clothes. They had to get bin bags, and arrived to Maicao just wearing the bags,” she says.

“My friend started crying [when she told me] and said, ‘I thought they were going to rape me.’”

UNHCR’s Sarrado says Venezuelan migrants are facing serious dangers across the border. “In Colombia, there is a risk that Venezuelans who are sleeping on the streets could be recruited by armed groups,” she says. “And for both adults and children, there is a risk of women having no other option than engaging in survival sex because there is no other way of getting money. They arrive without cash.”

The UN camp hopes to provide some protection, albeit temporary.

The UN’s Integrated Assistance Centre is the first of its kind in Colombia (Naomi Larsson/The Independent)

It’s been likened to a refugee camp, but officials are clear of its differences: the centre takes in only the most vulnerable people, and they can stay for just one month.

Migrants in Maicao must sign up on Tuesdays or Thursdays to be assessed for a place at the centre. It has a capacity of 350 across 60 tents, and so far 800 people have been through its canvas walls. They have a waiting list of over 1,000.  

These four weeks are meant to give Venezuelans time to make contacts, find work, or a place to live. The UN supports their travel outside of Maicao, and has partnered with NGOs to provide cash handouts for three months after they leave the centre.

“It’s relatively easy to get people in and more difficult to get people out without returning to the situation they were in before,” says Federico Sersale, head of the UNHCR office in Riohacha, Colombia. “We’re working closely with the government on the exit strategy.”

While there’s a serious fear of ending up back on the streets, no one has returned to the centre. “Not yet at least,” he says.

But for some, a month does not seem long enough.

Gonzalez’s eyes fill with tears when she tells The Independent she doesn’t yet have a plan once her time at the centre is up.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” she says. “Before I arrived, I heard it was for three months, but when I arrived they said one month and I was so scared. For me a month is not enough. I’m looking for work, but I don’t know how, I don’t have contacts here.” 

“To go back to the streets,” she says, “it will be terrible, especially for the girls.”

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