An unfolding crisis in Colombia
As you walk across the Simon Bolivar bridge from Venezuela to Colombia’s Norte De Santander region it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity jostling to enter. They are all fleeing the spiralling socio-economic crisis in Venezuela which until now has caused over 4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide. Around 35,000 people cross the Simon Bolivar bridge daily. Many undertake a round-trip simply to purchase items such as food and medicines unavailable to them in Venezuelan markets, but many others, around a 1/3, are fleeing their homes for good in hope of a better life.
A feminist led-response
When Oxfam designed our response in Colombia for Venezuelan migrants we knew we needed to meet their needs in an innovative and unique way. So many people were facing high levels of risk fleeing Venezuela with little personal belongings or an idea of where they were going. We also knew we had strong local women’s groups in these areas who we could work with to do this, so we chose to partner with the local feminist organisation ‘Fundación Mujer y Futuro (FMF)’ (Women and Future Foundation).
What Oxfam and FMF now have in place is a ‘Protection Path’ for vulnerable ‘walkers’- focusing on women, including breastfeeding and pregnant, the disabled and elderly and single parents with small children. Many of these ‘walkers’ fled Venezuela with no idea about the risks on a such a long journey through treacherous terrain. The road from Venezuela to the nearest town in Colombia takes 8 days on foot, from a hot climate in the lower regions it climbs to high altitudes with temperatures of 4 degrees across a mountain range. The road is long, and dirty with little to no pavement meaning families need to be careful of traffic as well. Some migrants fled in plastic sandals wheeling small suitcases.
Oxfam’s ‘Protection Path’ is a package process. When those who begin their walk encounter an Oxfam/FMF run ‘hostel’ on the road, FMF staff register vulnerable ‘walkers’ for assistance, and provide them with a bus ride to the city Bucaramanga. They also share maps and information with others passing by about the climatic conditions they should expect on the road (see picture). Sadly, this road is fraught with danger and many Venezuelans are subject to ongoing threats once they arrive such as human trafficking, sexual violence, exploitation or recruitment of children into criminal gangs. But once safely at Oxfam’s Bucaramanga hostel, they receive a hot meal, information sessions around the risks they might face , how to access essential services, an onward bus ticket to their final destination and a travel ‘kit’ containing basic toiletries and supplies. Oxfam also provides a debit card with a cash amount to help households pay for food, additional local transport and communication costs for the rest of their journey. Most go on to Ecuador or Bogota, but the varied and distant paths people choose mean giving cash gives each household the chance to make their journey easier and quicker.
The cash is provided on plastic debit cards, which people can use to withdraw money from ATMs in urban centres. This is less risky for staff and recipients as it avoids transporting large amounts of money. Oxfam partner FMF used to escort the beneficiaries to an ATM but an analysis of the risks as part of a ‘safe programming’ approach prompted staff to re-evaluate this and we now show a video instead.
The cash is highly appreciated by households, with most Venezuelans reported using it to safely access their final destination, reunite with other family members and purchase meals, pay for phone credit and pay for medicine. Giving it via debit cards is much safer for them that providing cash directly. Incidences of xenophobia are high still in Colombia as is the presence of armed groups in the area of Norte de Santander. Oxfam and FMF only play a small part in the journey these migrants embark upon, but it is a lifesaving one, reducing the risks people face and giving them a dignified and fresh start in Colombia.