Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, which Venezuelan authorities continue to keep closed, in La Parada near Cucuta, Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
FILE - Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia in La Parada near Cucuta, March 5, 2019.

"This is hell," says Gabriela, a Venezuelan refugee working as a prostitute in the Colombian border town of Cucuta.

The 19-year-old traveled 22 hours from La Guaira in Venezuela to work in Cucuta. Gabriela was not unaware of the job awaiting her. Like many others working in the sex industry in Cucuta, she'd heard about the opportunity from others who had already made the perilous journey across the border.

Like many Venezuelans who fled their country, Gabriela says she had little choice. The mother of a small child, Gabriela says while living in Venezuela, she did "not have the resources for diapers or milk."

Her work in Cucuta brings her around $30 to $40 a day. The money allows her to support herself and her children, something she can no longer do in her home country.

FILE - Police look at the identification cards of Venezuelan girls to check their ages as they search for minors at a bar known for prostitution in Cucuta, Colombia, June 26, 2018.

Sofia also made the trip into Cucuta, a 16-hour journey from Caracas. She came with her 2-year-old son.

Like Gabriela, she knew the work she would have to do. Economic opportunity has all but disappeared in Caracas, and she wanted to provide a better life for her son than she or his father had.

Sofia still struggles financially, and sometimes finds herself having to agree to multiple sexual encounters a day, a situation she describes as "a misery."

Both Gabriela and Sofia conduct this work gripped by fear on a daily basis. Prostitution is a dangerous line of work, particularly for refugees in a foreign country. They have to be careful to avoid situations with "men who want to abuse them," according to Gabriela.

Sofia and Gabriela say they have both been lucky in avoiding abuse up to this point, but Sofia knows people who "have been beaten, and mistreated until they are raped."

To make matters worse, victims of violence often have nowhere to turn.

Mass flow of people

Wilfredo Canizares, director of the Progresar Foundation, a human rights advocacy group in North Santander, Colombia, says, "Authorities don’t know how to respond" to new levels of crime and insecurity in Cucuta.

FILE - People cross the Colombian-Venezuelan border over the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cucuta, June 10, 2019.

According to Canizares, nearly 50,000 people enter and leave the city every day. This mass movement of people makes it harder for authorities to track and apprehend bad actors.
Overall, observers have praised the Colombian government's handling of the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

Colombia is currently allowing more than one million Venezuelans to reside in the country. To accommodate them, the government in Bogota set up paths for residence and work permits, created a mobility card to allow for easier border transit, and opened public schools to the children of Venezuelan refugees.

Colombia also extended citizenship rights to thousands of Venezuelan children born in the country, loosening a law that previously required at least one parent to have legal residency in the country.

Growing crisis

Still, the scale of the crisis is close to overwhelming, and continues to grow. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), thousands of Venezuelans are still arriving and transiting through Colombia, with no resolution to the crisis in sight.

These new arrivals will continue to strain a system already stressed by an unprecedented number of refugees. Without increased international funding, the UNHCR warns that the crisis could become dramatically worse.

The UNHCR, in partnership with more than 100 other organizations, in late 2019 announced a fundraising drive aiming to raise $1.35 billion to address the "increasing humanitarian needs of Venezuelan refugees … and the communities hosting them." Concerns have been raised that the fundraising drive, beginning this year, could fall short.

A similar drive in 2019 "was only 50% funded," according to the UNHCR spokesperson for the Venezuela situation, Olga Sarrado. In turn, this led to "a lot of people not receiving the assistance that was needed."   

If the funding doesn’t arrive this year, more people could be forced to resort to illegal and dangerous work to survive.

Heider Logatto Cuadros contributed to this report.

Child Marriage