Venezuelans cross over into Colombia to shop… or to start over

Photo taken by the journalist Marian Torres on Monday 24 July. Photo published on her Twitter account (@mariantorres3).
Photo taken by the journalist Marian Torres on Monday 24 July. Photo published on her Twitter account (@mariantorres3).

Thousands of Venezuelans have been crossing the Venezuelan-Colombian border to pick up vital things they need, before returning loaded with goods. But increasingly, they haven't just been doing their shopping in Colombia, but actually fleeing Venezuela with all of their belongings.

Venezuela has been in the grip of a major economic crisis since 2014, with supermarket shelves empty of basic goods, coupled with incredibly high inflation (reaching 800 percent in December 2016). The country is also rocked by political instability: for four months there have been almost daily demonstrations against the incumbent administration of Nicolas Maduro, which have resulted in more than 100 deaths.

Many Venezuelans are now crossing the border into Colombia to pick up supplies or emigrate in order to get away from the chaos in their country. Many cross using the Simón Bolívar bridge, located between the Venezuelan city San Antonio del Táchira and the Colombian city of Cúcuta. Around 25,000 Venezuelans go into Colombia every day via this route, usually before returning.

Venezuelans going back and forth to Colombia. Photo taken by the journalist Marian Torres on Monay July 24, by the international Simón Bolívar bridge, and published on her Twitter accuont.

On Monday July 24, the flow of Venezuelans into Colombia increased by 5 percent, according to Migración Colombia, the Colombian government department of migrations. Our Observer Francisco Javier Sánchez is a lecturer at the University of the Andes in San Cristóbal, the capital of Táchira state.

"Venezuelans are scared the situation in their country will get worse after the election of the constituent assembly"

On July 24, I went to the Simón Bolívar bridge: there were more Venezuelans than normal heading to Colombia. 

I think they were taking advantage of the fact that it was a public holiday to go and pick up supplies on the other side of the border ahead of the 48-hour general strike that started on Wednesday and could have stopped them from travelling to Cúcuta.

However, I also think that some Venezuelans decided to leave the country for good in the past few days, because they're scared that the situation is only going to get worse after the election of the constituent assembly. [Local journalist Marian Torres told France 24 that she had never seen so many people saying goodbye at the border: "I saw several young people crying as they were saying goodbye to their families".]

Our Observer took these photos on Monday July 24, between San Antonio del Táchira and Cúcuta.

Photo taken by the journalist Marian Torres on Monday, July 24, and published on her Twitter account.

It's easy to spot the difference between people who are emigrating and people who are just going to Cúcuta for a few hours, as the former always have lots of belongings with them.

For example, on Monday, I spoke to a group of around 25 people who came from Valencia, the capital of Carabobo state, and who wanted to go to Ecuador. They told me that they knew people who lived there and that they would find work there. For the journey, they had with them clothes, bottles of water, bread and tins of food. 

Other people told me that they were going to stay in Colombia or go to Peru, Chile or Argentina. But no one said they would go to Bolivia.

Rodelvis Amaya, a Venezuelan from Caracas, explained to the FRANCE 24 Observers team why people tended to choose those countries.

"Colombia is essentially a transit country"

I crossed the border at San Antonio del Táchira last week, but I don't want to stay in Colombia because it's too expensive, and there are still problems like in Venezuela: petty crime, corruption, kidnappings, money that has depreciated in value...

Actually, I want to go to Quito, in Ecuador: there, there's a strong currency, the American dollar, and it's easier to stay there legally.

Like lots of Venezuelans, I think of Colombia as a transit country. In my opinion, that's why it is so easy to get your passport stamped and there's no real help for us in this country. I think that only Venezuelans who have family in Colombia stay here.

Between 300,000 and 350,000 Venezuelans live in Colombia, some illegally, according to the director of Migración Colombia, Christian Krüger.

"In the area of Cúcuta, you can easily see that there are more and more Venezuelans who have come to work here," says Diego Villamizar, who works in the human rights sector. "It's a cheap workforce. They find work as waiters, salespeople, selling odds and ends, or cleaning windows when cars stop at traffic lights. There are more and more sex workers as well. These Venezuelans are given help mostly by churches or charities."

According to the director of Migración Colombia, the authorities have prepared themselves for a range of scenarios, including a sudden mass arrival of Venezuelans in the country.