In the median of a street in northern Bogotá, Colombia, 8-year-old Fiorella plays with a toy next to a tree, waiting for the day to pass. Her grandmother, Lisbeth, an elderly woman who approaches cars to beg, stands by the traffic lights on the corner. At another corner, Fiorella's two uncles, mother, and stepfather explain with a sign that they are Venezuelan and unemployed. Three times a week, the family travels to Bogotá from a neighborhood on the outskirts of the Colombian capital to try to earn some spare change.
Fiorella, who arrived in Colombia in late 2018, is one of the more than 327,000 Venezuelan children who live in Colombia and are in need of additional support for their health, education, protection, and well-being, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The Venezuelan crisis caused an exodus of more than 3 million people, of which more than 1.2 million are in Colombia, according to a report from the Inter-agency Mixed Migration Flows Group (GIFMM, in Spanish), an agency of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In Colombia, minors can receive medical care and go to school, regardless of their country of origin. The Colombian government said that about 130,000 Venezuelan children are enrolled in schools around the country. However, the large number of immigrants puts pressure on the public system, and slows down access. Fiorella should be in the fourth grade, but her family says they don’t know how to access those services.
Humanitarian organizations such as UNICEF, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Colombian authorities have intensified their efforts to assist Venezuelan children in Colombia, and to educate families about their rights.
“The access to basic services is the priority. The children who are crossing the Venezuelan border are suffering from serious malnutrition,” María Paula Martínez Villa, executive director of the NGO Save the Children Colombia, told Diálogo. “Plus, they are unprotected, because when they arrive with their families they have to sleep on the streets and are exposed to sexual violence, the possibility of being co-opted for child labor, and recruitment by armed groups found in some border areas.”
A life disrupted
Fiorella lived in Maracay, Venezuela, with her mother, stepfather, and grandmother. Her time was spent between school and home. But in October 2018, her mother lost her job — the bag factory where she worked shut down.
Lisbeth, who depends on her daughter economically, had to get up at 2 am to wait in line outside a supermarket that opened at 11. The first shoppers gained access to a scarce amount of food. Rice, pasta, and corn flour was all Lisbeth could afford.
“Being there means being hungry,” Lisbeth told Diálogo. “Right now, a [monthly] salary can be about 40,000 sovereign [bolivars] [$6.81]; an egg carton costs 25,000 sovereign [$4.20].”
With little money and food, the mother decided to go to Colombia. Soon after, the grandmother and grandchild began their journey to Bogotá.
It took three days to travel from Maracay to Bogotá. The trip included footpaths and crossing the border by boat through the Saravena River. They entered Colombia via Arauca and then took the bus to Bogotá to reunite with the rest of their family.
The six are among the more than 480,000 Venezuelans who, according to GIFMM, are in Colombia illegally. For these immigrants, GIFMM stresses three areas of intervention: direct emergency help, protection, and socioeconomic and cultural integration.
In April, more than 243,000 adults and children received basic support for food, medical services (including mental health, prenatal services, and vaccines), and housing in 19 Colombian departments. In the same month, about 5,000 children were able to access a learning center, and about 3,000 benefited from renovated schools with access to drinking water.
For its part, UNICEF’s 2019 goals are to help provide vaccines to more than 30,000 children, provide water and sanitation services in schools for 13,000 children, provide learning opportunities to 40,000 children, and assist 90,000 children and teenagers with measures to prevent violence, abuse, and exploitation.
Support by NGOs and the Colombian government in light of the Venezuelan crisis is on a large scale; however, migrants continue to enter, as the situation in their country worsens. On April 14, Colombian President Iván Duque announced new measures to assist Venezuelan migrants in departments on the border with Venezuela: La Guajira, César, Norte de Santander, Arauca, Vichada, and Guainía. The plan has a budget of $228 million for health services and humanitarian assistance, water, sanitation, and hygiene, as well as schools, among other services. It will have technical support from GIFMM, in coordination with local authorities.
“In moments where anti-immigrant feelings are increasing worldwide, Colombia has generously kept its doors wide open to their neighbors in Venezuela,” said Paloma Escudero, head of UNICEF Communications. “As the number of families that make the painful decision to leave their homes in Venezuela grows daily, it’s time for the international community to increase its support and help satisfy their basic needs.”
For her part, Fiorella misses her friends from school. “I like playing and learning. I’d like to play with play dough, with all my things, with everything I left behind.” She also says she wants to have friends, while she remembers that her best friend was her cousin and playmate, the very same playmate who cried a lot when she found out that Fiorella would not return to Maracay anytime soon.