According to the Venezuelan authorities, at least 56,000 Venezuelans returned between March and mid-June. The Colombian authorities monitoring the border crossings assume that at least 60,000 Venezuelan migrants have returned to the country since March through the Colombian city of Cucuta alone. They expect tens of thousands more to try to return in the coming weeks.
Cucuta, where three bridges cross the Colombia-Venezuela border, is the main transit point for many. “It’s like a giant hourglass,” said Victor Bautista, migration minister for the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, which is home to Cucuta.
“In the past five years, we̵
Pedro Roque often traveled 2,100 miles on foot from Lima, Peru to the border crossing at Cucuta. He lost his job in a chicken restaurant because of Covid-19. Without a salary, he couldn’t afford the rent and decided to go home.
With countries with significant Venezuelan immigrant populations such as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia taking stringent measures to contain the virus, Venezuelan migrants have few options. Most of the migrants with whom CNN spoke for this story said they worked in the informal economy without relying on social assistance during the ban.
In Cucuta, Roque sleeps with three other people under an awning while waiting for his turn to cross the border. Social distance is not a priority, he said. “Covid is a respiratory disease, right? If you ran 35, 40 kilometers a day for weeks to get here, you wouldn’t have Covid. A sick person would not have survived what we went through,” he said when asked why He wasn’t wearing a mask.
The makeshift camps where people are waiting to cross the border do not allow social distance. There are no toilets or running water here, and the largest camp consists of cardboard shelters and black garbage bags, among which around 1,300 Venezuelans are waiting for their turn to go home.
The Colombian authorities say they don’t know exactly how many people are in the camp. Every time a group leaves, new migrants take their place.
I am waiting to be called home
But people need support and community in times of crisis. An international humanitarian who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media said that Venezuelan migrants who had not set up support networks in a newly adopted country were most likely to return to Venezuela .
“If I have to starve, I want to starve to death with my family in my own place,” said Roque, the restaurant clerk.
This urge to go home seemed to have overcome all doubts about the risk of spreading the virus. Like Roque, some migrants waiting in Cucuta told CNN that they believed they had proven healthy after the long journey there. Others simply said that they had more challenges to overcome than the virus.
To control the spread of the virus, most migrants wishing to enter Venezuela will receive a color-coded bracelet from the Colombian authorities upon arrival in Cucuta. Roque was red.
Without a fever or a negative PCR test, they can cross the border as long as the Venezuelan authorities authorize it. This agreement between the two countries is informal; No government recognizes the other and theoretically the border is closed.
The migrants then have to isolate themselves for at least 12 days after arriving in Venezuela before being allowed to travel home. The Maduro government has set up isolation centers in cities near the border where migrants have to stay.
Venezuela has registered far fewer cases than other countries in the region. However, international observers have questioned Venezuela’s ability to test for the virus, declaring that the actual number of coronavirus infections could be much higher.
Only 350 Venezuelans are allowed to return to the country on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for a total of 1,050 a week – a number that reflects Venezuela’s limited ability to quarantine citizens upon arrival, the Venezuelan border agency told CNN. However, CNN has also seen migrants cross the border on a Tuesday, and the Colombian authorities say the border is sometimes reopened at very short notice.
The Maduro government has said that the right of citizens to enter their own country is respected and that slow admission is required to protect the rest of the Venezuelan population from the virus.
On the Colombian side, the authorities are already concerned about when the hourglass will turn around, and Venezuela’s needs will force migrants to leave again.
“If these people do not find any form of survival in Venezuela, they could certainly try to return to the places where they have spent the past three years, like in a huge migration swing, where they spend some time in Venezuela and some others abroad, “Bautista, secretary of the Ministry of Migration, told CNN.
The swing has already started for some: Adrian Lopez and his family of five are now going back to Bogotá, where Adrian worked in the informal economy.
They left the Colombian capital in March after the ban was imposed and arrived in Cucuta in early April after a 370 mile hike. But in the chaos of their arrival, they never managed to sign up for one of the color-coded groups to be tested for the virus. After two months in the migrant camp next to the border, they gave up returning to Venezuela.
“I was starving there (in the camp),” said Adrian. “My son is three months old and was born here. He is a Colombian citizen. You cannot kick us out. At least in Bogotá, I know the place and will try to find a job somehow.”