WASHINGTON - The United States is sending a U.S. Navy hospital ship to Colombia to help treat some of the hundreds of thousands of people who have poured over the border fleeing violence in Venezuela.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Washington from Bogata, Colombia, Friday that he would likely be sending the USNS Comfort based at Norfolk, Virginia.
Mattis said those he spoke with in Bogata were “embracing” and “enthusiastic” about the upcoming ship deployment, which he stressed was “absolutely a humanitarian mission.”
“We're not sending soldiers, we’re sending doctors,” Mattis said, without providing details on when the ship would set sail.
Hospital ships are typically deployed to provide life-saving treatment and medical care and to relieve the pressure on national health systems.
The U.S. defense secretary said he was given specific input, such as where best to deploy the ship, during talks Friday with his defense counterpart and newly inaugurated Colombian President Ivan Duque.
“They (Colombian leadership) not only agreed in principle, they gave details of how we might best craft the cruise through the region,” Mattis said.
Chile, Argentina and Brazil — the other stops on his South America tour — also provided input on the hospital ship deployment, according to Mattis.
Aware of Venezuelan sensitivities, Mattis stressed the U.S. hospital ship would not go into Venezuela's territorial waters.
Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, told VOA the situation in Venezuela has led to a migration crisis of global proportions “that is on track to potentially parallel or surpass the numbers that (have been) coming out of the Middle East.”
“If those migration numbers are not managed in an orderly, effective way, that has the potential to create greater instability in the countries to which migrants are going,” Marczak said.
As of June, an estimated 2.3 million people had fled Venezuela, mainly to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, according to the United Nations. U.N. officials reported at that time that more than half of those who fled were “suffering from malnourishment.”
The U.S. Navy has one other hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, which is based at San Diego, California.
USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy usually deploy for humanitarian missions with a diverse group of doctors on board hailing from multiple countries.