Migration waypoint in Cucuta, Colombia

CUCUTA & BARRANQUILLA, COLOMBIA

One of the main border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia, the town of Cucuta sees thousands of people crossing daily either for goods to take back to Venezuela, to access critical services such as healthcare or food distribution programs, or to move onward for more opportunities in other cities or other South American countries.

 

BACKGROUND

South America has seen its fair share of displaced populations. Chileans left their country during the Pinochet dictatorship and Argentinians have faced both displacement due to political and economic crisis. Colombia has suffered through years of internal conflict driven by guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary forces, both of them fueled by a thriving drug trade. Guerrillas (fighting the Colombian government since the 1960s), paramilitaries, and drug-traffickers have created one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world (second to Syria in the total number of IDPs) and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Colombians. While the largest remaining guerrilla group (FARC) demobilized through the peace agreement (becoming a political party), small dissenting cells are still at large. Dialogues with the ELN (active guerrilla) have started but have not brought results. They are still conducting kidnappings in areas with little central government protection. To make matters more challenging, demobilized FARC guerrilla fights, numbered in the thousands, are facing expected difficulties reintegrating into society. People that displaced large populations of Colombians now find themselves displaced. The UNCHR estimates about 3.6 million IDPs in Colombia. The mass population displaced by the violence in Colombia has reached bordering countries. According to the UN Data Portal (UNHCR Data Portal, 2016), as of 2016, there are over 101,000 Colombians in Ecuador in refugee or refugee-like conditions, a number that could reach over 250,000. 


As Colombia faces an IDP crisis and attempts to integrate ex-combatants into society, large numbers of people displaced from Venezuela makes the situation ever more challenging. The number of Venezuelans in Colombia is estimated to be around 800,000, just from the last two years. According to Colombian authorities, there are 442,000 Venezuelans living in the country without proper documentation and 376,572 with documentation (Wyss, 2018). 


Cities like Cucuta at the border with Venezuela were overwhelmed with the flow of people escaping an economic crisis to the point that the Colombian government tightened controls at the border. Today, most Venezuelans who enter through Cucuta on a daily basis come to buy or sell goods and return regularly to their home country. Yet, some stay in Cucuta or move to other parts of the country or the continent, like Peru and farther south like Argentina and Chile. It is estimated that more of the 23% of Cucuta’s population is of Venezuelan origin (Wyss, 2018). 


The increase in the Cucuta population is leading to a crisis. While Cucuteños empathize with Venezuelans by acknowledging their migration to Venezuela in the 1980s and a history of trade at the border, allocation of resources to Venezuelans has created resentment by the poor locals. Cucuta does not have a dense population, which facilitates the spread of the displaced Venezuelan population in and around the city. There are a few areas where the displaced population congregate: La Parada (the main entry point to the city from Venezuela) and a couple of local parks. In the vicinity of La Parada is where most agencies and organizations provide services and support to newcomers.

According to our fieldwork, the UNCHR, the Catholic Church, and the Norwegian Refugee Council among others have a presence at the border providing assistance and relief ranging from food to legal services. Yet, locals see this help as unfair as many suffer from extreme poverty. One food center managed by a Catholic group that used to give food to the local homeless population has shifted almost completely to serve the Venezuelan population. A larger food distribution center, led by a priest and supported by the city dioceses, started as humanitarian effort to serve a few is now a major logistics endeavor serving over 2,500 breakfasts and lunches every day. In response, however, they have received death threats and experienced some violence at or near food distribution sites. Resentment against aid organizations for assisting Venezuelans has resulted in several accounts of localized violence and civil unrest. 

It is important to note that a portion of forced migrants coming to Cucuta intend to stay in Cucuta. As such, several of the services provided by agencies and organizations are facilitating their movement onwards to other cities in Colombia and abroad. It is also important to note that Colombia has a high risk of earthquakes and Cucuta has suffered several with varying intensities, with the most damaging taking place in 1875 that leveled the city. The latest noteworthy earthquake took place in 2015. While geophysical events such as landslides are not directly attributed to climate change, increased precipitation may result in compounding hazards. Increased frequency of extreme events (e.g. floods, heatwaves) may compromise already precarious living conditions and exasperate existing regional inequalities and social inequity. The main freeway out of Cucuta is prone to mudslides as it is skirted by mountains. 

 

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