LA GUAJIRA, COLOMBIA - JANUARY 31: The 'Torres de la Majayura' settlement in Maicao houses more than 400 families are seen in La Guajira, Colombia on January 31, 2019. There live Venezuelans, returned Colombians and indigenous Wayuu. They ask for help to have health, education and job opportunities. (Photo by Juan David Moreno Gallego/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Colombia, with serious social and security problems of its own, has borne the brunt of the exodus, taking in 1.2m migrants © Getty

Jesús Lozano’s story speaks volumes about the lengths to which Venezuelans will go to leave their crisis-wracked country.

With his left leg amputated above the knee — the result of a tumour — Mr Lozano, 44, crossed the border to Colombia on crutches two years ago. He had nowhere to go and no job waiting for him, but even so felt he had to escape. 

For months he lived on the streets of Maicao, a city close to the countries’ arid northern border, selling sweets and begging for money.

In March, he moved to a new migrant centre, set up by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on the city’s dusty outskirts.

“It was worth it,” Mr Lozano said, reflecting on his odyssey. “It was tough being on the streets, but it’s better than Venezuela, where I just couldn’t live any more. I had no food. I couldn’t survive.

“I won’t go back unless things change,” he said, sitting and holding his crutches amid the rows of dust-covered UNHCR tents planted in the sand. “I’d rather stay here, try to start a small business and get a plot of land.”

As the stand-off between Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelan president, and his challenger Juan Guaidó continues, more migrants are following in Mr Lozano’s wake. 

“In June last year we carried out a census and there were 26,000 migrants. Now — less than a year later — we estimate it’s 60,000, and this isn’t going to let up,” said Aldemiro Santo Choles, secretary of the city’s municipal government. He also said there had been a surge in recent weeks due to the massive blackouts that have hit Venezuela, depriving people of basic services. 

Some 3m — 10 per cent of the population — have left, over the past three years, escaping the worst economic meltdown in Latin American history. It has become the biggest ongoing exodus on the planet, surpassing even those of the Syrians and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

The pace is also picking up. The Organisation of American States says the figure could rise to 5.75m by the end of this year and 8.2m by late 2020.

A Venezuelan migrant sits with belongings at a bus terminal in Maicao, La Guajira, Colombia, on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. As neighboring governments are growing increasingly impatient with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's inability to control the flood of migrants pouring into their countries, the World Bank says that if the flow is well-managed short-term, it may contribute to long-term economic growth in countries like Colombia. Photographer: Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg
A Venezuelan migrant sits with his belongings at a bus terminal in Maicao, La Guajira, Colombia. The influx of poor and desperate people has sparked a backlash © Bloomberg

Colombia, with serious social and security problems of its own, has borne the brunt of the exodus, taking in 1.2m migrants, almost all of them in the past five years. 

Until now, the government has resisted setting up formal camps, fearing they will become semi-permanent settlements, but the sheer weight of numbers is forcing a rethink. “We are not a rich country to withstand such a large flow of migrants,” Iván Duque, Colombian president, said last week, while restating his commitment to help “our [Venezuelan] brothers who are suffering under dictatorship”.

In Maicao, a city of 165,000, many of the Venezuelan migrants sleep on the streets, beg and sell food from the pavements. Many have stayed in the frontier city, which is reliant on cross-border trade. 

The UNHCR centre can house only 300 people. The plan is to expand it to four times the size, but even then it will be able to serve only a fraction of the arrivals. 

“It’s a reception centre, not a refugee camp,” insisted Mr Santo Choles, explaining that migrants can stay for one month to gather their strength and get legal and medical help before moving on.

But José Carlos Molina, Maicao’s mayor, acknowledged the centre “is likely to become permanent”, wiring the camp up to the electricity system and replacing the portable toilets with permanent ones — at least until something changes in Venezuela that prompts migrants to go home.

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Inevitably, the influx of so many poor, desperate, unemployed people has prompted a backlash, not only in Colombia but elsewhere in Latin America.

In Ecuador in January, locals attacked migrants after a Venezuelan stabbed his pregnant Ecuadorean girlfriend to death in an incident filmed by bystanders and posted on social media. The government promised a crackdown on Venezuelans in response. 

In Peru, which has taken in about 700,000 Venezuelans — second only to Colombia — prosecutors are investigating the mayor of an Andean city who promised to “free” his city of Venezuelan migrants and force companies to hire more locals.

“I’ve had bad days, with people screaming insults at me for being a foreigner,” said 35-year-old Milagros Bastidas who, like Mr Lozano, spent months sleeping rough in Maicao before arriving at the UNHCR centre. “But generally I think the Colombians have been welcoming.”

Further south, around the Colombian city of Cúcuta, the border is officially closed. In February the Maduro government blocked bridges between the countries to stop a US-sponsored bid to take humanitarian aid into the country.

For weeks afterwards, Venezuelans waded across the River Táchira that divides the nations to buy food and supplies in Colombia, but recent heavy rains have made that impossible. So, last week, thousands of Venezuelans broke through the barricades at Cúcuta.

Around Maicao, there are no such problems. The border is a flat expanse of scrubland — easy to cross and difficult to control. Many Venezuelans arrive with no passport and no permission to stay.

At the UNHCR centre, no one has a good word to say about Mr Maduro — even those who supported his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez. Most say Mr Guaidó, who has emerged as the leader of the opposition this year with the backing of the US and about 50 other countries, should be given a chance.

“They say that Guaidó would make us slaves of the United States,” said Lilianis Méndez, a 20-year-old migrant as she shaded her eyes from the bright Maicao sun and the dust blowing in across the savannah. “That might be true but I’d rather be a slave with food than have nothing to eat.”

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