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Forced back home by the pandemic, Venezuelan grandmother sees no choice but to flee once again

With lockdown making it all but impossible for many Venezuelan refugees and migrants to meet their basic needs, thousands have headed home – only to have to flee again.

Migrants near Budapest

When Rosalba* decided to flee her native Venezuela, she never imagined she would end up facing so many hardships abroad that returning home would eventually come to seem like her only viable option.


But three years after the 48-year old grandmother and her family left the bustling Venezuelan port city of Maracaibo, seeking safety in neighbouring Colombia, the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for them to make ends meet. With the spectre of hunger and imminent eviction looming large, they took the wrenching decision to make the risky trip back home.

“When I left Venezuela, it was unliveable,” said Rosalba, referring to the situation in 2017, when she, her two adult children and two granddaughters fled to the Colombian seaside city of Barranquilla. “When I returned, it was worse.”

Rosalba would spend just a month in Venezuela before fleeing yet again, forced out by the deteriorating situation at home.

“It was a nightmare, a total nightmare.”

With Latin America hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and lockdown and other restrictions taking a terrible economic and social toll throughout the region, tens of thousands of the estimated 5.4 million Venezuelans refugees and migrants living abroad have taken the drastic step of returning home over the past months.

Driven by many of the same factors that pushed Rosalba and her family to leave – penury and potential eviction – many have made the dangerous journey by whatever means possible, by bus, hitchhiking or even by foot, from as far away as Ecuador or Peru. The already difficult trip has been made that much harder by pandemic-related border closures that have forced many to resort to clandestine crossings that put them at even greater risk.

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While the exact number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants who have returned home amid the pandemic is not known, Colombia’s migration authority estimates that more than 122,000 people have ignored the ongoing border closure between the two countries to cross back into Venezuela as of late November.

But like Rosalba, many of those who returned home during the pandemic have packed their bags and left once again amid the continued deterioration of conditions inside Venezuela. Insecurity in the country is spiralling, and food and medicine shortages have worsened, as have fuel shortages and power outages. Already on the rise, the number of Venezuelans leaving the country is expected to climb significantly in the coming months, as some lockdown measures are eased in other countries throughout the region.

“The coronavirus changed everything.”

Before the pandemic, Rosalba’s life in Colombia had been slowly but steadily improving.

She found work caring for an elderly woman with a disability in Barranquilla, while her son supplemented the family income by working as a street vendor and occasional auto mechanic. After the pandemic hit, stay-at-home measures aimed at staunching the spread of COVID-19 meant that he could no longer go outside to sell his wares, leaving the family to try to scrape by on Rosalba’s modest salary. Their expenses outpaced her income, making food scarce and rent money increasingly hard to come by as the pandemic dragged on.

“The coronavirus changed everything,” Rosalba recalled, adding, “It shattered our happiness and made it so we had no choice but to return to Venezuela. At least there, we have our house, so we weren’t at risk of finding ourselves on the streets.”

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With official border crossings between Colombia and Venezuela closed since March, the family relied on smugglers to usher them across a clandestine crossing, where they fell victim to criminals who prey upon those returning, stealing their meagre belongings and whatever money they might have.

“It was a nightmare, a total nightmare,” Rosalba said, with a shudder. “Late at night, a group of people stopped the truck and stole our belongings. We were so scared and were just praying that they wouldn’t kill us.”

Despite how hard the trip back had proved, she ended up staying in Venezuela for only a month before returning once again to Colombia.

She said things in Venezuela had “changed so much” even since she and her family left for the first time, in 2017.

“There’s no gas, so you have to go everywhere on foot,” she said, recalling her weeks back in Maracaibo last August. “I said to myself, ‘you can’t live here. At least in Barranquilla, I’ll be able to feed us.’”

And so, in September, Rosalba returned to Barranquilla, and to her former job as a home caregiver, by herself. She spent two days sleeping in a bus station in a border town before she was able to get in touch with her employer, who sent her the money for a bus ticket back to Barranquilla. She is now working off the advance even as she scrapes together remittances to send to her family back in Maracaibo.

Still, Rosalba is among the lucky ones. Many of the Venezuelans who have made the draining back-and-forth journey arrive in their host countries with little more than the clothes on their backs, even as they now face even slimmer prospects due to the often-devastating impact the pandemic has had on the communities that had welcomed Venezuelans refugees and migrants in years past.

READ  Human trafficking: PJI  urges proper trauma management for returnees

In response, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is already stepping up its presence in border regions, providing emergency shelters and expanding health and psychosocial support services and cash transfer programmes. This week, 158 humanitarian organizations launched a US$1.44 billion plan to respond to the growing needs both of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as to the needs of the communities hosting them.

Asked about her state of mind in the wake of the jarring back-and-forth journey to safety, Rosalba said she has very mixed feelings.

“On the one hand, I’m happy to be in Colombia and to be able to provide for my family,” she said, adding that “on the other hand, it’s just so wrenching to be apart.”

*Name has been changed for protection reasons.

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IOM assists border control on route linking Ethiopia, Kenya

IOM has helped to establish a new Border Control Post between Ethiopia and Kenya. Photo: Rahel Negussie/IOM

Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country (by population) after Nigeria, is also one of the continent’s largest sources of international migrants.

Along its vast national circumference –some 5,311 kilometres, connecting Ethiopia to Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia– government control posts are limited. Lack of adequate staffing and modern technology impedes proper migration management, a matter of concern for national governments as well as for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

At the start of this new year, IOM has helped open a new Border Control Post (BCP) between Ethiopia and Kenya. The post, at Neprumus in Ethiopia’s Dasenech district, straddles one of the 830-kilometer Ethiopia-Kenya frontier’s most frequented migratory routes, alongside a major route for Ethiopian migrants trying to reach South Africa. Ethiopians normally pass through Kenya into Tanzania, then travel further south.

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In March 2020, at least 60 Ethiopian irregular migrants were killed after being trapped in a lorry along this route. Hence, the urgent need for better and improved border control posts in the region.

“Supporting the establishment of modern and efficient BCPs will facilitate safe and orderly migration of citizens, enhance the relationship between bordering countries, provide protection, and increase the political and socio-economic stability between Ethiopia and Kenya,” explained Kederalah Idris, IOM’s Better Migration Management (BMM) Project Officer.

IOM is also supporting Ethiopia’s Immigration, Nationality, and Vital Events Agency (INVEA) with training to enhance the capacity of immigration officers, and at the same time supplying infrastructure and office equipment, computers, and generators to establish new border control posts.

“Strengthening BCP will play a great role in facilitating safe movement of community members to neighbouring Kenya and will create job opportunities for the community. In addition, it will have a big contribution in facilitating regular migration, while monitoring irregular movements,” said INVEA Director-General, Mujib Jemal, during his opening speech. He also recognized IOM and the zonal administration’s efforts in facilitating the opening of the BCP.

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At stake is more than improved border efficiency. IOM sees hope for improved trade benefiting the regional economy and raising livelihoods for some 48,000 people living in the Dasenech District.

Health checks are also being integrated into the BCP, which is a timely development given that COVID-19 continues to affect the nation. As of 18 January, there has been 131,546 confirmed cases in Ethiopia leading to 2,033 deaths. Against this COVID-19 backdrop, IOM looks forward to these new controls reducing mobility restrictions and facilitating movement of goods, services and skills. Beyond commerce, IOM also views BCPs as vital for protecting people from falling prey to human smugglers and traffickers.

Plans are to open more BCPs in the Pagag, Kurmuk, and Fefrer border towns in Gambella, Benishangul Gumuz, and Somali regions, bordering South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia respectively.

During the inauguration attended by representatives from IOM and senior officials from INVEA, IOM Ethiopia received a ‘Certificate of Recognition’ from the Ethiopian authorities for the support to strengthening Ethiopia’s border management and control efforts.

READ  Irregular Migration: Women more vulnerable to trafficking

The establishment of this important BCP is supported by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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Amid 2020 pandemic IOM supported over 2,500 migrants with voluntary return from Greece

Dudu and his family taking some selfie pictures before departing to Georgia. Photo: Konstantina Mintzoli/IOM
A family from Iraq receiving transportation assistance from IOM to the airport in Athens. Photo: Konstantina Mintzoli/IOM

Athens – The International Organization for Migration (IOM) supported the voluntary return of some 2,565 people from Greece to their home countries in 2020, in coordination with the Greek authorities and respective countries’ diplomatic representatives.

Amid hardships and challenges induced by COVID-19 in the past year—including mobility restrictions and closed borders—many migrants living in Greece expressed interest in returning voluntarily to their home countries.

“It is extremely important to be able to continue offering the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration support during this challenging period, as for many migrants, COVID-19 posed additional challenges to their stay in the EU,” explained Gianluca Rocco, Chief of the IOM Mission in Greece.

The 2,565 Returnees from Greece through IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme originated from 46 countries, with the largest contingent (734 migrants) coming from Pakistan. This was followed by Georgia (529 migrants), Iraq (489), Afghanistan (188) and Iran (163). Thirty per cent of migrants assisted were males between the ages of 22 and 29.

READ  Amid 2020 pandemic IOM supported over 2,500 migrants with voluntary return from Greece

The number of returns fluctuated throughout 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, from 868 in the first quarter to 300 per month at the end of the year.  Since launched in Greece in 2010, IOM’s AVRR programme has assisted more than 50,000 people to voluntarily return to their home countries.

In 2020, IOM developed initiatives to overcome challenges, mitigate negative impact on migrants and ensure that Ministry of Health protocols were applied to all without discrimination. IOM medical teams provided assessments and medical examinations, including COVID-19 testing. In addition, relevant information was communicated through online outreach activities, and the dissemination of leaflets and posters to migrant communities. In parallel, helplines operating in 13 languages supported remote counselling as needed.

“We worked intensively with the Greek authorities and the Embassies of countries of origin to develop new cooperation mechanisms to overcome mobility restrictions and make the returns possible, particularly for the most vulnerable,” said IOM’s Rocco.

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IOM Greece also established an Online Scheduling Appointment (OSA) platform through which potential beneficiaries were able to book counselling appointments online.

When commercial flights were not available, IOM organized charter flights to Georgia and Iraq for 433 people in total in close collaboration with all relevant actors in Greece and the two destination countries.

Prior to their departure from Greece, migrants who applied for AVRR had the opportunity to access temporary accommodation facilities including the Open Centre for migrants (OCAVRR) in Athens.  IOM also provided a cash grant to cover returnees’ initial basic expenses after their departure.

Upon return, 1,008 migrants who qualified under the programme for in-kind reintegration assistance were able to use the support to set up small businesses (individually or in partnership), training programmes, temporary accommodation, job placements, medical support and material assistance.

IOM reiterates the importance of promoting the systematic inclusion of reintegration assistance as a force for stability in communities of return and as a bridge between migrant return and sustainable development.

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Download here for a snapshot view of the programme’s main 2020 highlights.

The project “The implementation of assisted voluntary returns including reintegration measures and operation of Open Center in the Prefecture of Attica for applicants of voluntary return (AVRR/OCAVRR)” is 75 per cent  co-funded by European Funds (Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund) and 25 per cent by Greek National Funds.

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Human trafficking: PJI  urges proper trauma management for returnees

The Pathfinder Justice Initiative (PJI), a Non-Governmental Organisation, has called for proper trauma care for migrant returnees to prevent them from becoming vulnerable to subsequent trafficking.

Evon Benson-Idahosa, the Executive Director, PJI, made the call at a Rehabilitation Workshop for Providers Serving Survivors of Human Trafficking held in Benin on Thursday.

The workshop was organised by PJI and funded by INSighT- Building Capacity to deal with human trafficking and transit routes to Nigeria, Italy and Sweden.

Benson-Idahosa said that a majority of returnee-migrants usually undergo different traumatic situations and needed to be properly rehabilitated before being integrated back into the society. She noted that if the migrant returnees were not properly rehabilitated, they would not be able to put into good use any form of skills acquisition or empowerment received.

“Providers serving survivors should know how to handle traumatised victims because many of them, especially females, have been raped and have gone through horrible experiences during their trafficking journey.

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“The providers should know that there are best practices in terms of handling trafficked victims; they need to use a survivor centred approach to prioritise the needs of the victims,” she said.

She called on the government at all levels to partner more with NGOs on providing best traumatic care for returned migrants in the country.

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