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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  Economic shocks of COVID-19 disproportionately affects displaced Venezuelans in Peru, new research finds

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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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

READ  UN laments humanitarian challenges in Venezuela

“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

READ  Migrants' remittances drop by over  $100b - UN Chief 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

READ  Global Migrant Deaths Decline, but Tragedies Continue Worldwide

UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

READ  Migrants' remittances drop by over  $100b - UN Chief 

“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

READ  Global Migrant Deaths Decline, but Tragedies Continue Worldwide

“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

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Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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