Leaving Venezuela: How Colombia is shouldering a migration crisis

The economic disaster in Venezuela has forced many people to try their luck by heading west - to Colombia.

More than two million Venezuelans have fled their country

The hole beneath this door marks the end of a smugglers' route from Venezuela to Colombia. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Venezuela is in an economic free fall. It may have one of the world's largest oil reserves, but that doesn't mean it can feed or care for its own people.

The mass migration from Venezuela — due to corruption, hyperinflation and economic mismanagement — is currently one of the biggest movements of people on the planet.

President Nicolas Maduro has denied the scale of the migration, and claims his country's financial problems stem from an "economic war" waged by "foreign subversives."

The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) says an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans were living abroad as of June 2018, with more than 1.6 million having left the country since 2015.

The numbers are stark. The individual stories and faces and details even more so.

Here are a few of them.

The border divide

Every day at dawn, thousands of Venezuelans cross the Simon Bolivar bridge into Colombia. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

Barely 50 metres into Cúcuta​, Colombia, past the gate that separates it from Venezuela, a woman plunked herself onto the bridge deck.

There she sat surrounded by her bags and her kids. Around her, a human surge moved steadily away from the border and into the frenetic market of Cúcuta. From scarcity to a place of plenty.

Mothers and their children seem, at first glance, to make up a large contingent of those crossing here.

Numbers aren't entirely reliable. Those who bypass the official crossing and wade through the river and bush aren't counted. But the presence of women on this particular border makes Colombia a standout.

​According to the UN, 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

According to the Migration Policy Institute, most of those leaving Venezuela for Peru, Costa Rica and Brazil are men of working age.

But the gender split is roughly even in Colombia, and the more time goes on, the more vulnerable the people arriving.

More affluent Venezuelans, people with family overseas or those with access to foreign passports left for Miami, Spain, Argentina and elsewhere in the earlier years of the exodus.

Substantial portions of those leaving now have no means with which to support themselves. It could be that more women are showing up in Colombia because of access to health care.

Cúcuta's public hospital has gone into debt this year just trying to care for the swell of Venezuelan patients.

Diseases Colombia thought it had eradicated, like measles, are back. As of Sept. 5, 76 cases have been confirmed.

Nineteen-year-old Sindy, right, left Venezuela with her husband after she got pregnant. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC News)

Dr. Norberto Rodrigo, coordinator of obstetrics and gynecology at Cúcuta's Erasmo Meoz Hospital, said at one point this summer, 62 per cent of the women giving birth at Cúcuta's hospital were Venezuelan.

"This has been a major effort for our hospital, requiring more people and more medicine," Rodrigo said. "The extra numbers are putting at risk our ability to assist everybody. I'm not sure how long we can sustain it."

The rise in raw numbers is surely telling. According to the International Organization for Migration, 66 Venezuelan women gave birth in Colombia in 2015. It was 649 in 2017. So far this year, it's 1,076.

Caring for them, Dr. Rodrigo said, has proven more complicated than caring for Colombian women.

The Venezuelan mothers aren't well when they arrive. Often, they are malnourished and haven't had access to any prenatal care in Venezuela. The babies are also more vulnerable when they are born.

Numbers from the IOM suggest there is an increase in perinatal mortality, maternal mortality and malnutrition of children under five.

Fleeing by foot

Many migrants make the journey by foot, walking inland to bigger cities in Colombia or to neighbouring Ecuador and Peru. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Of the millions who have crossed from Venezuela into Colombia, hundreds of thousands have decided to keep on walking, toward Ecuador, then perhaps Peru.

Maybe they thought they were ready. Their shoes say otherwise.

It is 1,500 km to the border with Ecuador. Some, like Sandra Negrin, first walked out of Venezuela across the murky and, on this day, raging Táchira River. 

"The water level was high and I almost had to swim," said Negrin. "I got cramps in both my legs right in the middle of it. I started shivering. I thought the worst and I cried. But then I started walking again, because I thought I can do this for my children, I need to be able to do it for them."

Sandra Negrin's boots are soaked after walking from Venezuela through the Táchira River into Colombia. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Her brown winter boots were soaking as she trudged through the hot, humid streets of Cúcuta, trying to sort out the next step. "I'm trying to reach a friend where I'm hoping we can stay. Otherwise I don't know. The truth is, I don't know."

Moving on means walking along the hard, steep asphalt of the highway that ultimately climbs some 2,600 metres through the Andes to Bogotá. It gets cold. Cold enough that some migrants have come to fear the part of the road known as "the fridge."

Its real name is El Páramo de Berlin, and it's less than 200 kilometres from Cúcuta. But it's another world, both in terms of weather and terrain. 

Colombia has recorded the deaths of 17 migrants, who had frozen to death in the elements along the narrow roads. But there are likely more.

The worn rubber Crocs of migrants crossing the narrow roads into Colombia show how ill-prepared some are for the difficult journey. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

So the blue suede boots and the torn rubber Crocs of men slowly climbing the road are ominous signs. It's possible these people have no idea what's ahead.

Those who do are the international aid groups and entities like the UN's International Organization for Migration. They're advocating for a system of shelters along the route to ensure those walking it have a safe place to rest.

Bare necessities

One migrant was spotted carrying a shoeshine box. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

How do you decide what to bring when you are running for a new life? These aren't choices Venezuelans make in the middle of the night, as those fleeing fires or wars or earthquakes might.

Their disaster has been a slow-motion economic crumbling. But when they finally decide to go, it appears to be simply with what they can carry.

Practicality seems to win over emotion.

One woman was spotted carrying a worn wooden shoeshine box. It seems an anachronistic sight in 2018, but economic ruin reduces people to basics in order to make money.

'We're determined to ensure that the Venezuelan people get their say,' U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

That's also why some Venezuelans are willing to concede lengths of their hair, lopped off by Colombian vendors in exchange for some pesos.

Maybe enough to buy some food, a few nights in a rented room, a ride on the road to a new start.

Then there's the money used to make money. Bags of old, now-worthless Venezuelan bolivars can be bought by traders in Colombia for a few thousand pesos (the equivalent of about $1.50 Cdn).

Gabriela Crespo and her family try to entice drivers outside Cúcuta with purses and wallets they make out of now-worthless Venezuelan bolivars. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

How fast that currency fell. Six years ago, one of those 100-bolivar bills could have bought a fair amount of food.

But with nearly one million per cent inflation, the currency isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

So the Crespo family of Valencia, Venezuela, buys bricks of the stuff and weaves it into wallets and purses, which they then sell for the equivalent of $3.00 Cdn each.

"It's not like being in my own country," Gabriela Crespo said. "But at least my children don't go hungry. I have five children. Back home, if they had lunch, they'd have to skip dinner. And if they had dinner, they would have to skip breakfast, since we didn't make enough [money] anymore."

The money from their currency craftsmanship genuinely feeds them now. Ingenuity and survival.

Surviving the odds

Isabel Carrascal shares this kitchen with six other people, including her young children. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

The Colombian government says that as of mid-June, about one million people have left Venezuela and decided to settle in Colombia.

That's the case with the seven people who share one kitchen in a rented brick house in Cúcuta. There's no running water, they have a hole for a toilet, no locking doors and two light bulbs that get moved between the two sleeping rooms and the kitchen. For that, they pay $50 a month in rent. Getting that money isn't easy. 

Isabel Carrascal, left, cannot work, largely because she is recovering from both ovarian cancer and kidney surgery. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

"It's not like being in your own house," said Isabel Carrascal, who lives there with her kids. "But it's fine."

Currently, only one of the house's residents is working, selling tissues and wet wipes at an intersection.

Carrascal would like to be working, but she is recovering from both ovarian cancer and kidney surgery and just can't manage it.

She was supposed to have an appointment the day we went to see her, but getting to the appointment meant money for bus fare. All the housemates agreed that using that money to buy cooking gas instead was a better investment. So Carrascal didn't go.

These are the hard decisions of people starting again outside of Venezuela. They all want to go home, but to a country that is functioning, not limping into despair.

Leaving Venezuela means leaving relatives and friends, familiar places and memories of comfort. It also means wanting some stability.

"I want to stay here," Carrascal says. "I want to be able to have a life here, be able to send [the children] to school, because we have no idea of when things will get better in Venezuela."


  • A previous version of this story mistakenly said that according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled since 2014. In fact, the UN's statistics on migration are cumulative and go back more than a decade. According to those statistics, more than 2.3 million Venezuelans lived outside the country as of June 2018, more than 1.6 million of whom had fled since 2015.
    Sep 20, 2018 10:28 AM ET


Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.