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

Thousands of Venezuelan migrants stream across the Simón Bolívar Bridge into Cúcuta, Colombia every day. Some return within hours, having gotten the food and medicine that they can't find at home. Others stay in Colombia, host to over 1.3 million forcibly displaced Venezuelans, according to the United Nations.

The welcome is getting colder. In Latin America, conservative and populist governments are passing increasingly restrictive migration policies. Border cities like Cúcuta are finding their health and education systems overwhelmed, crime rates up and wages undercut. Attacks on Venezuelan migrants have increased in frequency.

"No economy in Latin America is prepared to absorb this enormous workforce. It is going to continue to worsen," said Tamara Broner, a Venezuelan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Colombia, for example, began with a generous, long-term approach that focused on integrating migrants. The country approved unrestricted travel within a marked border region, maintained free access to schools and the healthcare system, and authorized a $240 million package in special funding for struggling border cities, including a tax break, cheap credit, hospital funding and plans to improve local infrastructure. 

But months later, the numbers of migrants fleeing severe food and medicine shortages in Venezuela are still increasing, while resources and goodwill are running out.

Venezuelans wait at an immigration processing office on the Rumichaca bridge, before crossing the border from Colombia to Ecuador, Thursday, June 13, 2019. Venezuelan migrants are making their way to Peru, where on June 15, the country will start…
Venezuelans wait at an immigration processing office on the Rumichaca bridge, before crossing the border from Colombia to Ecuador, June 13, 2019.

Applications for a temporary Colombian residency permit in closed in October 2018, and the last of the one-year permits will expire this fall. Colombian police are cracking down on migrants, destroying makeshift bridges on the border and heightening security on legal bridges. The country has gone as far as to deport Venezuelans without documents, returning them to a country where 90% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2017. 

The escalating economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is a first for the region. Venezuela was once the wealthiest country on the continent of South America, and one of the only democracies. It received thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers from neighboring countries. Now, those neighbors are finding themselves on the opposite side of the problem.

"I think that is why the response has been so welcoming to Venezuelans initially. It was like a recognition that Latin America had the obligation to pay them back the favor," said Broner. "But that credit is not eternal. When it becomes a situation that lasts too long, when it has an impact on the economy, on job offers, that makes it harder."

A slew of temporary visas and permits provide short-term solutions. The rules change often, and program expirations and application due date limits keep out Venezuelans who arrive after arbitrary deadlines. 

Countries like Chile and Peru, which host the second-largest number of Venezuelan citizens, have had passport requirements in place since last summer. Activists have long denounced the requirements as too difficult for most Venezuelans to comply with.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks in Caracas
FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks in Caracas, June 30, 2019.

It can take up to two years to get one, or require bribes of up to $6,000. Meanwhile, the minimum monthly wage in Venezuela is 18,000 bolivares — worth about $6.70 when President Nicolas Maduro raised the currency by 300% in January 2019. Now it is worth $2.75. 

Passports are typically available at consulates in other countries, but Venezuela announced in late June  that for citizens living in Colombia, it would only issue travel documents at the civil registry headquarters in the capital city of Caracas.

Maduro ended diplomatic relations between the two countries during an aid dispute in February 2019. 

This puts visas out of reach for many, who don't have the passport or criminal background documents required. Chile's new humanitarian visa also costs the equivalent of $30, which Feline Freier, a professor at the Universidad del Pacifico in Peru, regards as another socioeconomic filter. 

Without a visa, migrants can't stay in countries that require them, including Ecuador and Peru. Previously, Venezuelans could file asylum claims at the Peruvian border and stay in the country while they waited for a decision, according to Freier. Now, she says, the government is conducting predetermination interviews and turning some migrants away.

Paradoxically, it's the poorest, least-connected Venezuelans who are migrating now, as governments in the region rush to taper the flow. Migration from Venezuela has been picking up since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1999, but intensified dramatically in 2015, when Maduro took power and the economy collapsed.

The first to leave were those with the resources to choose their destinations, typically in the United States or Europe.

"Now at the border, what you see is people leaving with what they have, in more and more desperate situations," said Broner, the researcher. "You see people that literally need to cross the border to eat, or they need to cross the border to get their kids vaccinated, or to give birth."

Freier described families selling off their possessions, hoping to piece together enough for the $100 bus fares that would get them into another country. 

Some Venezuelans leaving now don't have the money for that. Known as "walkers," they simply make the weeks-long journeys to Ecuador, Peru, or elsewhere on foot.

Over 4 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, according to the U.N. — 14% of the country's population of about 28.5 million.

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