Venezuelan refugees: The forgotten crisis

Jun 11, 2021
Imagine trekking 135 hours by foot, covering 645 kilometres of rough mountainous terrain, moving through severe weather conditions.

Such is the journey of caminantes, translated to “hikers”—families with children who have fled Venezuela with what they can carry, looking for work, food, medicine, and a chance at a better life.

Peter Gape, National Director for World Vision Colombia, is familiar with the perilous journey across the mountains. 

“The altitude reaches 3,400 meters above sea level here, which for many people, well, even for us who live in Bogotá at 2,700 meters, we already feel a shortness of breath. Imagine how it is for Venezuelan caminantes,” Peter says. 

Peter and the humanitarian response team with World Vision Colombia spent time visiting the three routes most frequently travelled by the caminantes. They accompanied thousands of families along the roads of Colombia, for hundreds of kilometres, learning what it is that makes a family embark on a journey like this one, and what their greatest needs are.

a Colombian man smiles at the camera from the side of hilltop road.After travelling the routes of "Los Caminantes" from Venezuela to Colombia, Peter Gape says he's seen the real hunger, cold, thirst and fatigue these families experience in their pilgrimage to find a better life for their children. Photo: Erica Bohorquez

Seeking refuge in Colombia

At home, political unrest, hyperinflation, and lack of access to basic goods and services continues to impact as many as 7 million people within Venezuela, while 5.6 million have fled violence and poverty. That’s more than the number of refugees who have fled the decade-long Syrian civil war. And migration from Venezuela shows no signs of stopping. 

Colombia has received the most Venezuelan migrants and refugees of any country. The country currently hosts more than 1.7 million Venezuelans, of which about 56% live with irregular immigration status. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many to migrate through unauthorized border crossings, leaving them with limited access to health services — including prevention and care for COVID-19 — and excluding them from access to vaccines. It also makes them vulnerable to unfair eviction, domestic violence, and difficulties finding and keeping work, leading to more social and economic problems. 
A group of Venezuelan migrants travel along a mountain road in the rain.Caminates risk everything – their safety, their health, their livelihood – when they leave Venezuela, and yet for many, it is still a better option than staying. Photo: Erica Bohorquez

“Despite lockdowns, border closures, and the prospect of becoming unemployed or homeless, thousands of people continue to leave Venezuela every month,” says Joao Diniz, World Vision’s regional leader for Latin America and the Caribbean. “In Venezuela, children are vulnerable to being exploited by gangs, and we know of cases of children as young as nine labouring in cemeteries to support their families. When they leave, children risk being separated from their parents, robbed, raped or kidnapped along the way. This is how desperate the situation is for families. For them, leaving and risking everything is still a better option than staying.”

Risking everything for a better life

Karina left Venezuela and crossed into Colombia at an unauthorized border with her husband, Anderson, and her baby, who is just a few months old. Circumstances were precarious at home and she was hoping to find work, food, and medicine on the other side. 
A Venezuelan woman sits by a fire and holds a baby.Karina is grateful for the kindness of strangers she and her husband have met along the way, but being a caminante is the hardest thing she’s ever done. Photo: Erica Bohorquez

“Sleeping on the street with the baby is the toughest thing we've experienced,” says Karina, describing their journey. “We lit a fire last night to warm ourselves and we spent the night here. We’ve met some good people who have helped us along the way, though. One family let us sleep in their house. They gave us food and they let us rest there for a day.” 

Karina has met grandmothers and mothers along the way who are travelling with older children – children who are old enough to walk. 

“I think it’s more difficult for them,” says Karina. “When you have a baby, the baby is in the stroller, but when you are walking with children, they get tired. I think that for that mother it’s tougher because she sees her children walking.”

Yadira agrees. She’s travelling with her two grandchildren.
A Venezuelan woman with bright red hair and a red mask stands at the edge of a road.Yadira, a grandmother of two, left on foot with what she and her grandchildren could carry. Walking hundreds of kilometres with young children has been difficult, but she remains focused on the hope of a better life. Photo: Erica Bohorquez

“I don’t wish this on anyone,” she says. “I try to keep my grandson distracted by showing him the horses, and the cattle, but he cries. My granddaughter says, ‘Granny my feet hurt,’ or ‘Granny, it hurts here.’”

Still, she has faith that their future will be brighter. 

“That is why I left Venezuela,” Yadira says. 

What is World Vision doing about the Venezuelan migrant crisis? 

World Vision has been working in Colombia since 1978, helping vulnerable communities move beyond survival, to recover and build a future. Today, that includes the Venezuelan refugees and migrants arriving on their doorstep.

World Vision Colombia staff are working in collaboration with the GIFMM, an interagency group working with Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia and targeting the regions most travelled by caminantes
The needs are great. World Vision Colombia staff found most of the children and families they met on the road need access to food (94%), water (50%), transportation (50%), shelter (38%), sanitation and hygiene (31%) and healthcare (25%), among others.
A Venezuelan woman crouches down to the little girl beside her. They are at the side of a green mountain road.World Vision Colombia staff are responding to the urgent needs of "Los Caminantes" Venezuelan children and families on the move seeking more than survival. Photo: Erica Bohorquez

Since 2019, staff have impacted the lives of over 430,000 refugee and migrant children and their families throughout the country, with food and cash vouchers to help meet basic needs, helping caregivers find jobs, education support and child protection in child friendly spaces, access to clean water and sanitation and more. 

“Parents don’t decide to do this for pleasure; no, they are doing it because there is a need where they came from,” says Peter Gape. “This is a call for us to understand what is happening to our Venezuelan brothers, sisters, boys and girls, who have decided to take on this dangerous journey.” 

Back on the road, Karina’s husband Anderson laments the uncertainty being a caminante has wrought for his young family. 

“Here, you never know what is going to happen tomorrow, all you have is right now,” he says. “I already miss the warmth of home.”

You can help children and families in the world’s most dangerous places survive, recover and build a future by providing life-saving essentials like food, water, and shelter, creating safe places for children to overcome ongoing trauma, and by supporting local experts to develop long-term sustainable solutions to bring lasting change to communities who need it most. Act now.

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