Venezuelans once again fleeing on foot as troubles mount

PAMPLONA, Colombia (AP) - Eleazar Hernández slept on a sidewalk in the midst of a light drizzle, freezing temperatures and the roar of trucks passing by.
The 23-year-old Venezuelan migrant tried to get to the Colombian city of Medellin with his wife, who is seven months pregnant.
However, when they reached Pamplona, ​​a small mountain town more than 307 miles from their final destination, the couple ran out of money for transportation. Hernández could not buy a bus ticket and placed his hopes on a ride in the back of a truck. It was the safest way to cross the Paramo de Berlin, an ice-cold plateau at an altitude of 4,000 meters.
"My wife can barely walk," said Hernández, who slept on Pamplona's sidewalks for four days. "We need transportation to get out of here."
After months of COVID-19 lockdowns that have halted one of the largest migratory movements in the world in recent years, Venezuelans are again fleeing their country's economic and humanitarian crisis.
Although the number of people leaving the country is fewer than at the height of the Venezuelan exodus, Colombian immigration officials expect 200,000 Venezuelans to enter the country in the coming months.
The new migrants face much more adverse conditions than those who fled their homeland due to COVID-19. Shelters remain closed, drivers are more reluctant to pick up hitchhikers, and locals fearing contagion are less likely to help with food donations.
"We hardly got any elevators on the way," said Anahir Montilla, a cook from the Venezuelan state of Guarico, who approached the Colombian capital with her family after 27 days.
Before the pandemic, over 5 million Venezuelans had left their country, according to the United Nations. The poorest go on foot through terrain that is often scorching but can also get cold.
When governments across South America shut down their economies in hopes of stopping the spread of COVID-19, many migrants were unemployed. Over 100,000 Venezuelans returned to their country where they had at least a roof over their heads.
The official land and bridge crossings to Colombia are still closed today, forcing migrants to flee illegally along the permeable 2,200-kilometer border with Venezuela. The dirt roads are controlled by violent drug trafficking groups and rebel organizations such as the National Liberation Army.
"The return of Venezuelan migrants is happening even though the border is closed," said Ana Milena Guerrero, an official with the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian nonprofit that helps migrants.
Additionally, many today are forced to walk for days in their own country to reach the border as transportation between cities has been hampered by a lack of gas.
Hernández said it took him a week to walk to Colombia from his hometown of Los Teques.
"I cannot allow my daughter to be born in a place where she may go to bed hungry," he said while enrolling with a humanitarian group that was handing out backpacks of food and hats for cold weather.
In Colombia, migrants usually walk on highways or wait for a ride. But that has also become more difficult.
"It was very difficult," said Montilla, who was 20 miles from her final destination. "But at least with a job in Colombia we can afford new shoes and clothes. We couldn't do that." Venezuela."
On a long stretch of road that connects the border town of Cucuta with Bucaramanga further inland, there used to be 11 shelters for migrants. Most have been instructed by local governments to curb coronavirus infections.
Before the pandemic broke out, Douglas Cabeza had turned a shed next to his Pamplona home into a shelter that housed up to 200 migrants a night. Now he's lending fitness mattresses to those who sleep outside in hopes of protecting them from the cold.
"There are many needs that are not being met," said Cabeza. "But with small gestures like these we try to do something for them."
Once the migrants have reached their destination, a new list of concerns begins. The unemployment rate in Colombia rose from 12% in March to almost 16% in August. Those who cannot afford to pay rent are being evicted from their homes. In addition, more than half of all Venezuelans in Colombia have no legal status.
Still, the prospect of earning less than the minimum wage is a boost for many. The monthly minimum wage in Colombia is currently around 260 US dollars, well above that of Venezuela.
Hernández worked as a street vendor in Venezuela, selling cakes that were baked by his wife. However, money for groceries became increasingly scarce, prompting the couple to make the 1,384-kilometer journey to Medellin.
"I'm Venezuelan and I love my country," he said. "But it has become impossible to live there."
Mariana Palau reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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