Groups hope renewed focus on Venezuela will bring much-needed aid

Cucuta, Colombia – William Romero queued with thousands of other Venezuelans in Colombia’s Cucuta on Friday, waiting for a free meal at a church kitchen.

He arrived at 8am, but didn’t make the cut, so he waited for lunch.

Romero has lived in the border town for man than a year, eating only at the kitchen.

He said he’s witnessed an increase of Venezuelans streaming over the border in search of a life away from food shortages and hyperinflation.

“It’s worse than ever before, there are more and more people coming every day” the 37-year-old former construction worker said.

“As more people come, each person struggles hard to find their resources,” he told Al Jazeera.

William Romero (right) waits for a free lunch among thousands of other Venezuelans [Dylan Baddour/Al Jazeera]

Organisations helping migrants and refugees who have fled to Colombia and beyond agree, saying the growing number continues to put a strain on resources. But they hope the attention Venezuela has gained this week may bring the much-needed aid and relief that aid groups have been demanding for years.

“It feel like we’re reaching a tipping point,” said Trisha Bury, deputy director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Colombia. “It feels like we’re finally getting the attention this situation has deserved for years.” 

On Wednesday, opposition leader Juan Guaido swore himself in as interim president after the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared President Nicolas Maduro illegitimate.

The United States, among other regional powers, quickly recognised Guaido as president.

Maduro accused Guaido of staging a US-backed coup. He severed ties with the United States, and order all American diplomats out of the country within 72 hours. Turkey, Russia and China came to his defence.

Thousands of anti-government protesters, as well as pro-government protesters took to the streets, with the opposition calling for more protests this weekend.

Aid groups in Cucuta hope the renewed focused on Venezuela from the international community will help shift focus on getting them the resources needed to cope with the increasing number of migrants.

Increase of migrants crossing border

Situated on the border, Cucuta is along the most-trafficked route across the 2,200-kilometre frontier dividing Colombia and Venezuela. Here, thousands of Venezuelans sleep in packed, squalid lodging for migrants, or they huddle in nooks or wooded areas to sleep hidden from police who will evict them. 

The IRC logged about a 21-percent increase in the number of Venezuelans crossing the border in Cucuta between late 2018 and the first month of 2019.

At least one checkpoint along the mountainous road into Colombia saw migrant traffic grow from about 700 people per week in November to more than 1,000 a day in January.

Last month, economists with the Brookings Institute published projections showing another five million Venezuelans could be expected to flee their country, in addition to the three million that already reside abroad.

But according to organisations operating here and along the border, funding from the international community has been lower than expected.

“Overall, it is disappointing the very low levels of funding flowing to Latin American countries hosting Venezuelan migrants and refugees,” Dany Bahar of the Brooking Institute told Al Jazeera.

The IRC logged about a 21 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans crossing the border in Cucuta between late 2018 and the first month of 2019 [Dylan Baddour/Al Jazeera] 

Jean Carlos Andrade, the coordinator of a church kitchen run by the Diocese of Cucuta, said the support of the United Nations has helped, but the kitchen still lacks enough resources to help everyone.

Early last year, it began serving 1,500 daily meals to migrants and refugees. In June, the World Food Program got involved and has since upped funding, so the kitchen now serves 7,500 daily meals, between breakfast and lunch.

The UN refugee agency also funded the construction of offices and rooms where families can consult medics or nutritionists. They built recently-opened large bathrooms to combat a significant public health threat where thousands of people live outside. 

But the operation – the largest such relief for migrants in the entire border zone – has barely made a dent in the crisis.

Cucuta is the epicentre of the world’s response to the Venezuelan crisis because most aid groups have been barred from entry into Venezuela.

International donations of medicine or food have largely been kept out of the crisis zone.

Instead, already overwhelmed groups like the UN agencies wait across the border to receive the migrant tide. 

‘The Venezuelans need help’

According to Andrade, the region still needs, daily food for thousands of people, healthcare for migrants with grave conditions like cancer or HIV, education or daycare for the innumerable children out of school or on the streets and transportation for the migrants who want to leave the overcrowded border zone but can’t raise the money for bus tickets.

Felipe Munoz, Colombia’s manager of the border zone, said that what’s needed most is support at the local level. 

“The most important thing for the government is to support the local level, the municipalities that are receiving the migrator inflow,” he said.

“The only way that this situation can go from humanitarian tension to process of development is that we can document these hundreds of thousands of people so that they can be productive.”

Back outside the church kitchen, Romero said he first left Venezuela so that he could find work and send money home to his family. But since December, he’s had nothing to send due to the increasingly grim situation in Cucuta.

He said that no matter what happens at the political level, the focus should be on getting help Venezuelans who’ve fled. 

“We left our families behind to come here and search for food,” he said. “The Venezuelans need help.”

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