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Venezuelan migrants in Colombia face the pandemic between vulnerability and xenophobia

A Venezuelan migrant carries her baby in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Bogotá.LUISA GONZALEZ / Reuters

The coronavirus has starkly shown the vulnerability of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. In their country of origin, to which thousands have sought to return, the Chavista authorities have treated them as “biological weapons” and restricted their return. And on this side of a porous border of more than 2,200 kilometers, the confinement measures decreed to contain the contagions make it difficult for them to earn a living in the cities that had welcomed them. All amid the increase in national misgivings in the face of a group that is unprotected.

During the last months, the returns have had great visibility. Despite mobility restrictions and border closures, more than 95,000 Venezuelan migrants have returned from different parts of Colombia, according to the most recent figures from Migración Colombia. At least another 42,000 have expressed that intention. However, they represent only a very small fraction of the universe of migrants who have found refuge in Colombia, by far the main destination of a diaspora that exceeds the five million Venezuelans who have been driven by hyperinflation, insecurity or food shortages and medicines.

The X-ray is dramatic. At the end of May, there were almost 1,765,000 Venezuelan citizens in Colombia, according to figures from the immigration authority. Of these, one million are irregular – that is, they have entered the trails, or have exceeded the terms of the permit granted – and nine out of ten feed the ranks of informality. In their vast majority, they are part of the vulnerable sections of society that have felt most strongly the onslaught of the economic crisis. In a context of increasing poverty and unemployment, many need help to survive a very difficult time, as the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has warned since April.

Under enormous pressure, Colombia has maintained its policy of reception and migration flexibility. In general terms, the outbreaks of xenophobia have been contained, although they increased at the end of last year during the massive protests against the government of Iván Duque, part of the wave of social unrest that shook several countries in Latin America. Colombia was no exception and foreigners were accused without evidence of stirring up the demonstrations. In Bogotá there were graffiti, some attacks and burned the vehicles of several bicycle taxi drivers, one of the informal jobs popular among migrants. The tension eased with the new year, but then covid-19 broke out. In recent months a deterioration in the survey indicators has been observed.

The unfavorable opinion of the Venezuelan migration in Colombia peaked with the triggering of the pandemic in April. Then it has returned to its pre-epidemic values, but these have already been rising for some time. Two thirds of the indigenous population has an unfavorable view of people who come to stay.

“I think that the pandemic did affect this process,” Felipe Muñoz, the outgoing adviser to the Government for migration from Venezuela, explained to this newspaper at the beginning of the month. With the difficult management of the returnees, Colombians once again saw them on the street and occupying public space. “We have to refine the ability to identify to the public opinion the contribution of migrants always, but also during the pandemic,” said Muñoz before leaving his post to take over as head of the Migration Unit of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) .

“What the health authorities are doing is attending to cases without distinction of nationality,” explains Juan Francisco Espinosa, director of Migration Colombia. Those who have returned to their country are screened both at the point of origin and at the point of departure. If they present any type of symptoms, they cannot board the buses that take them to the border, and if they have symptoms there they cannot cross either. Those measures, in any case, cover only that small strip of the migrant population that was set in motion, and do not reflect the incidence of contagion among the vast majority who remain in their host places.

THE COUNTRY has had access to a database of the Ministry of Health that compiles one by one all the cases of COVID-19 detected among the Venezuelan migrant community in Colombia until the end of July. Its analysis shows that, for the period considered, nothing suggests that this group constitutes a differentiated focus, but it does intuit a differentiated impact on the health of the affected people given their situation of vulnerability.

A localized incident

The first thing that can be extracted from the data is that, at least in the period analyzed, the incidence of contagion is not perceived as greater among the Venezuelan population. Some may suspect that this is due to a lower number of diagnostic tests, but the relatively low ratio of confirmed deaths among detected cases suggests that the denominator in this division (cases) is not particularly under-represented.

There are certain notable sources of contagion in the data of the migrant population, but they are the same as for the country as a whole: Bogotá stands out, and to a lesser extent Barranquilla-Soledad. Border cities don’t have major outbreaks, at least not until July.

For several years, migration has not been an exclusive phenomenon of the bordering regions and has a national scope. Only 30% of migrants are located today in Colombian departments on the border. In fact, practically one in five (19.6%) lives in Bogotá, a city of more than seven million inhabitants that is home to almost 350,000, and in the department of Atlántico there are 163,000, almost 100,000 of them in Barranquilla.

“I spend my days trying to convince migrants who I am on the street not to return to Venezuela. The level of risk they run on that journey is enormous. Here we will take care of each other in some way, ”Claudia López, the mayor of the capital, told this newspaper. “We cannot transfer the basic income to the migrant population, because the first requirement is to have citizenship. We have had to support them in kind and there the work with UNHCR and the national government has been key ”, he explained. Authorities delivered more than 200,000 bags of food to the migrant population across the country to help them withstand the strictest phase of quarantines. To these aid are added the efforts of international cooperation.

Invisible checkout

Although a differential contagion among the migrant population cannot be observed in these data, what does exist is a potentially greater, more serious affectation. Starting with their lack of access to the Colombian health system. Despite the fact that its coverage on paper is high (above 90%), and even with rulings from the Constitutional Court and political commitments that would facilitate coverage for migrants regardless of their regularization, effective access to services is far very much to be complete.

The lack of complete data, for migrants as for the rest of the segments of society in Colombia, does not allow us to draw firm conclusions but only to look for clues. Such as those that also offer the data of differentiated virus impact by access to the health system.

The lower severity observed among the uninsured is due in part to their lower average age (30 years vs 34-35 of the other two groups), while the incidence of fatality among people with a subsidized regime is not explained by the age. This raises concerns about a lack of diagnostic tests in this segment (which would overrepresent the most serious cases), perhaps complemented with a truly differential impact due to greater exposure to contagion due to working and housing conditions: people in a subsidized regime belong to strata lower socioeconomic levels than those in the contributory regime, typical of the middle classes.

In this as in so many other things, however, the population of Venezuelan origin is not different from that of the country as a whole. Nor to the continent. The condition of migrant accentuates vulnerabilities, but it also correlates them: with the level of income and the need to complete them. A factor that is determining the routes that the virus follows throughout Latin America.

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