Wed, May 16, 2018 - Page 9 News List

As Venezuelan exodus swells, migrants face Colombian backlash

The UN says the reasons Venezuelans are migrating fall within the spirit of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which defines refugees as those fleeing violence, hunger and poverty resulting from a breakdown in the rule of law

By Christine Armario and Manuel Rueda  /  AP, CUCUTA, Colombia

Illustration: Mountain People

When Colombian police caught Victor Colmenares selling coffee without a work permit on the dusty streets of Cucuta, they ordered him to get inside a truck filled with Venezuelan migrants being quietly removed from the nation.

The 20-year-old construction worker trembled as the unmarked truck approached Colombia’s border, thinking about his pregnant wife still in Cucuta and the dangers he might face back in the nation he had fled.

“I was incredibly afraid to go back to Venezuela,” Colmenares said. “People are robbed there. People are killed. I cannot go back.”

As the exodus of Venezuelans fleeing their nation’s economic and humanitarian crisis grows, neighboring Colombia is responding by tightening checks aimed at curbing the number of migrants in the nation illegally.

In border cities such as Cucuta, police are rounding up Venezuelans illegally hawking popsicles in public squares or working as prostitutes in brothels and taking them back to Venezuela.

However, the removals, although often legal, raise a prickly question: Should migrants be sent back to a nation the US and others have condemned as a hunger-stricken dictatorship?

“We can’t tell everyone: ‘Come, stay here,’” Migration Colombia agency Director Christian Kruger. “There is no country in the world that can support unlimited migration.”

About 1 million Venezuelans fled from 2015 to last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, and hundreds of thousands more have left in the first three months of this year.

They are now displaced throughout the region in an accelerating migratory wave that is unparalleled in South American modern history.

Colombia has received the bulk of the migrants, with an estimated 3,000 Venezuelans arriving each day.

At that pace, Colombia receives within two months about as many migrants as Italy did in all of 2016 during the more high-profile Mediterranean refugee crisis.

Officially, Colombia deports few migrants: Just 442 have been removed from the nation so far this year, according to government figures, but those numbers do not include migrants like Colmenares, who officials count as having “voluntarily returned” to their nation of origin.

In total, about 2,700 Venezuelans have been sent back under that classification, officials said.

A new special migration unit launched by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in February conducts twice-daily round-ups in the nation’s busiest border cities.

Venezuelans caught without papers are given the option of paying a fine far higher than what most will earn in a year or contesting it in court, Kruger said.

Facing those prospects, he said most instead ask to be taken back.

“They would rather be in their homes than living in a park,” he said.

However, in several inspections witnessed recently by the Associated Press, migrants themselves did not ask to be returned. Instead, officials told them simply to “get in the truck” as several police officers kept guard nearby.

Once back in Venezuela, most of the migrants easily find a way to return to Colombia through the nation’s porous 2,200km border.

One migrant caught in a recent sting said she had been returned to Venezuela eight times.

“The process of returning Venezuelans is absolutely useless,” said Ronal Rodriguez, a professor studying migrants at Rosario University in Bogota.

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