An acute political and socio-economic crisis in Venezuela, at least dating back to 2016, led to an increasing outflow of migrants from the country. The Venezuelans that I’ve met say they were compelled to leave because of insecurity and violence, as well as the lack of access to food, medicine and basic services, after losing their income. Colombia is by far the country most impacted by this exodus.
At the border crossings, thousands of people enter every day. Some cross international bridges, while others avoid passport control and highway tolls by using smugglers’ routes. Two years ago, I decided to document this story and self-funded the project Exodus. At first spending weeks, and then months at a time, in some of the border areas, I traveled on migration routes alongside migrants who call themselves “the walkers.” They were taking a long journey from the eastern Colombian border, through the Andes, up to the capital city, Bogotá. Among them, I have followed the most vulnerable migrants: children and teenagers, pregnant or nursing mothers. Through them, I feel I have witnessed Venezuela’s collapse.
Even though Venezuela officially closed its land border with Colombia in February, around 300 clandestine crossing points remain active. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), about 4.5 million Venezuelans have left the country, including at least 1.6 million fleeing to Colombia, a number probably grossly underestimated since not everyone is registered.
People queue for donated meals from relief organizations. Children line up to fill bottles with water. Migrants rush with their belonging, crowding onto any truck they hope will bring them to a better place. However, Colombia’s poor and violent society has not recovered from decades of civil war, and have no means to properly receive Venezuelan migrants. Sick people and pregnant women look for help in the cities, but overcrowded hospitals fail to respond. As people from two collapsing worlds collide into each other, pressures breed greater instability. Left in urgent need, some are pushed into illicit and criminal survival strategies.
Charity and aid are scant far from the eye of the media, that mostly focus on main Colombian border towns. High up in the Colombian mountains, the cold challenges Venezuelans walkers who are used to much warmer Caribbean weather. At night, they sleep in abandoned buildings or houses of compassionate Colombians. In the migrants' informal tent cities in the capital Bogotá or the desert of the northern border in the La Guajira peninsula, people have no access to running water and adequate sanitation. Open defecation and precarious sanitary conditions expose people to the insurgences of infectious disease.
A migration crisis rivaling that of Syria, this is one of the largest migration flows in Latin America’s history.