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North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border
Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border
A displaced malnourished mother and her children sit on the ground waiting for food in Bama's camp for internally displaced people (IDP), Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, 30 June 2016. AFP/STRINGER
Commentary / Africa

North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout

Children are dying in Bama, a town in Borno state, north-east Nigeria, suffering from lack of food, clean water and medical care. They are the most tragic manifestation of the humanitarian fallout of the Boko Haram insurgency and the state response to it, a crisis that now impacts the lives of millions. The insurgency itself, the aggressive military response to it, and the lack of effective assistance, both national and international, to those caught up in the conflict threaten to create an endless cycle of violence and depredation. Unless efforts to contain and roll back the current crisis are quickly scaled-up, peace is likely to remain a distant prospect in this region of Nigeria.

Once a city of 300,000, Bama is now an army-controlled camp of 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), some forcibly moved there by the military. There are around a dozen sites like Bama, hosting at least 250,000 people living under the security forces’ scrutiny. The number will likely grow as military campaigns continue.

Neither the army, nor the Nigerian emergency services are up to the task of caring for them. There have been – and still are – too many bottlenecks. Authorities must pay more attention and commit more resources, clarify and rationalise the country’s assistance structure, improve aid governance, promote transparency (more NGO and media reporting), facilitate humanitarian access and address the widespread suspicion that many IDPs support Boko Haram.

Humanitarian agencies have also struggled to respond adequately, both in recognising the scale of the problem and reacting sufficiently promptly. For their part, UN agencies and international humanitarian NGOs need to engage authorities more proactively and improve their collaboration in responding to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. Doing so will mobilise more international funding – currently grossly lacking – and make better use of international expertise.If the humanitarian crisis is not addressed soon, it will have serious security and political implications. In the short term, it may push people back into areas under Boko Haram’s control, or to other parts of Nigeria whose capacity to sustain them is questionable, or across international borders, from where some could be trafficked into an already vulnerable Sahel region, and on to Libya – an important gateway to Europe. In the long term, it could leave the Nigerian state and its international partners tainted, undermining further their legitimacy and capacity to control violence in the north east and the Lake Chad region.

Dying in a “Safe Area”: The Situation in Bama

Situated 72km south east of Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, Bama was once a major trade hub on a main road to Cameroon. Overrun by Boko Haram in September 2014, the army recaptured it in March 2015. Most of its inhabitants had already left by then and thousands had been killed by Boko Haram, but the army began bringing in civilians it found during operations in the surrounding rural areas. Citing security concerns, the army has itself been running the Bama camp, notionally the responsibility of the Borno State Emergency Management Agency (BOSEMA). It has banned IDPs from travelling in the camp’s vicinity or to other “safe areas”. The security forces and state-supported civilian self-defence groups, known as vigilantes, also have been “vetting” the newly arrived.While Bama camp is safe from the Boko Haram threat that hovers over the wider local government area, it is, for many, a place of death. In June, the rate of severe acute malnutrition was 19 per cent among children – the emergency threshold is 3 per cent. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 244,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition in Borno state and on average 134 die every day from this. A few health ministry officials have been brought in under military escort for short stays and some humanitarian partners have been intermittently giving the army supplies to distribute to the IDPs, though with little supervision. This is not enough and with major deficiencies in water, sanitation and hygiene and the rainy season (June-September) under way, many are concerned that a cholera epidemic could break out. The rains, furthermore, will make many roads and tracks impassable.

The Humanitarian Costs of Insurgency and Counter-insurgency

Most officials blame Bama’s dire humanitarian crisis on Boko Haram: people began starving while they lived under the insurgents’ control, and the military rescued them. The insurgency has indeed done terrible damage to the lives and livelihoods of many in Borno state, as well as in neighbouring Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe states. Boko Haram ruthlessly targeted some communities, particularly those that set up vigilante forces or helped the military, killing many civilians and forcing many more into exile. Those who tried to stay and live under Boko Haram’s control faced significant difficulties. The insurgents heavily taxed communities, plundered and forcefully recruited among them and fighting disrupted harvests.But the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the nature of the counter-insurgency campaign. An aggressive, regional military operation has deliberately stifled economic activities, denying Boko Haram supplies, trade and income from protection rackets. Military operations have also made producing and accessing food a lot more difficult for all living in and close to Boko Haram-controlled areas. Trade and mobility, essential for making a living in the Sahel, have become extremely difficult and dangerous.

Attitudes toward those Displaced

Many among the military and many civilians are quick to look with suspicion on people coming from Boko Haram-held areas. Though there is no evidence to suggest a deliberate attempt to punish a population suspected of complicity with the insurgents, there are alarming signs that their welfare is not being prioritised, whether out of a lack of capacity or concern or due to security concerns. Even women captured, abused or forced into “marriage” by Boko Haram bear the stigma of their association, and their children are suspected of having “bad blood”. This fear of “contagion” and, more concretely, of suicide attacks by women and children, is part of the problem. This is one reason the only IDPs the army lets into Maiduguri, which already hosts an estimated 1.5 million, are children requiring sustained medical support, though sometimes without their carers.Conducting security operations should be kept distinct from humanitarian actions. If not, those in genuine need of assistance risk being denied help; while entire communities stand in danger of neglect. In such an environment, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated from the state, driving them to seek support elsewhere. Humanitarian assistance must remain impartial and needs-based; while security measures must be proportionate to the risk – which will likely be reduced, not increased, by greater freedom of movement – and non-discriminatory.

Inadequate National and International Assistance

At the end of 2015, 3.9 million people in north-east Nigeria out of a total of 5.2 million across the Lake Chad Basin were in urgent need of food assistance. In April 2016, the Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer visited Bama. Shettima said afterward that his state was “hanging between malnutrition and famine …. People [were] dying like flies”.

Of the $248 million required for the emergency response in north-east Nigeria in 2016, less than 20 per cent was available by May. Donor pledges were higher for Chad and Niger, where the number of persons in need was smaller. The World Food Program (WFP) supported fewer than 2,000 people in the north east in March 2016; that figure had increased to 50,000 in May, but was still way behind target given that more than half of the 1.5 million IDPs just in Maiduguri are judged by the UN to be malnourished, and the situation in rural areas is often worse. In neighbouring Cameroon, also affected by Boko Haram, UN agencies helped four times as many people (90 per cent of the most food insecure). In July, the total number of IDPs in this part of Cameroon was around 190,000. Recent reports of the shocking conditions in Bama did draw some attention, but it took a controversial 22 June communiqué by Médecins Sans Frontières to bring the starving into the limelight.

The Nigerian government’s response has been hampered by constrained resources and multiple pressing security problems. It is facing a resurgent rebellion in the Niger Delta, separatist agitation in the south east, and increasing violence in the Middle Belt, including recent clashes between pastoralists and farmers over land and water, as well as a severe economic and budgetary crisis. Neither the National Emergency Management Agency nor its state-level counterparts have the funds or the capacity and experience to manage a prolonged, large-scale humanitarian operation. Already overwhelmed by IDPs in Maiduguri and other established sites, Nigerian agencies have struggled to serve new camps.

Attempts to improve the government’s response have lagged. The Victims Support Fund (VSF) is constrained by the lack of clarity in Nigeria’s overall framework for humanitarian response. In July 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari established a Presidential Committee on North-East Interventions (PCNI) to coordinate domestic and international humanitarian efforts, but as of July 2016, the committee had still not been inaugurated. Some government sources say the president is waiting for the National Assembly (federal parliament) to create the North East Development Commission (NEDC), which includes a humanitarian portfolio, but some interviewed by Crisis Group fear it may become merely another platform for the region’s elite to share patronage rather than for boosting humanitarian aid.

Many implementation partners of UN agencies lack the capacity to work in the region’s remoter parts where the terrain is extremely challenging and where they do not enjoy the relative protection of Maiduguri (which itself faces significant humanitarian needs). So far, humanitarian workers have been unable to establish credible contacts with Boko Haram to negotiate access and obtain guarantees that can reduce risks to acceptable levels. Particularly in areas of Borno state outside the Maiduguri metropolitan area, some organisations, including from the UN, have depended on the army for protection, assessments of local security conditions and sometimes humanitarian service delivery.

Nigeria, with Africa’s largest population and economy, is sensitive to foreign criticism and, understandably, keen to ensure that foreign support in addressing the crisis does not compromise its sovereignty. Many officials remember the civil war (1967-1970) when Nigeria was condemned for the terrible famine in the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra and some secessionist supporters provided military aid under the guise of international humanitarian assistance. As a result, authorities are sensitive to outside aid or reporting. Yet the lack of reporting has made it difficult to mobilise international support for resources.

The Risks Ahead

Failure to adequately support IDPs, in part because of suspicion that they support Boko Haram, may push them back into, or discourage them from leaving, insurgent-controlled areas. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Boko Haram’s attacks and suicide bombings in and around IDP camps are attempts by the insurgents to staunch the flow of people from areas under their control. It may be working to an extent. Some IDPs reportedly are choosing to return to their home areas, despite the risk of Boko Haram attacks, rather than staying in dire camps.In the long term, failure to help those in need could further undermine the state’s legitimacy and capacity to control violence. While the Nigerian military and its regional and international partners may be able to contain Boko Haram, unless the state addresses poor governance and other structural factors that drove people to support the movement, there is a high risk either that Boko Haram will be revived or similar groups will emerge.

What Should Be Done

To prevent the current humanitarian emergency from claiming more lives, prolonging the conflict and fuelling longer term insecurity in the region, the government must match its military campaign against Boko Haram with strong commitment to addressing the immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term development and reconstruction assistance to rebuild the north east. That includes granting access to, and facilitating, independent local and international reporting and assessments. This is necessary not only for proper resource mobilisation, but even more importantly as a way to provide independent analysis of outstanding emergency relief requirements.

Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and President Muhammadu Buhari, as well as some army commanders, have been remarkably willing to talk to journalists. However, the president should pay special attention to the governance of aid. Reports of the embezzlement and diversion of food and other aid need to be properly investigated and officials found to have stolen or mismanaged aid must be sanctioned. For example, the report of the Borno state House Verification Committee into allegations of aid diversion, which should be completed soon, should be made public and quickly and openly acted upon.

The government and international partners should have fewer qualms about bringing assistance closer to the war zones. It is possible that some of it could leak to Boko Haram members, but this marginal price should be balanced with the immense relief it would provide, the lives it would save and the goodwill it would generate for the government. Furthermore, improved assistance would probably be more efficient in attracting civilians to government areas than military mop-up operations. Where Boko Haram can no longer use the “rhetoric of plenty”, as it once did, offering feasts of meat and cold drinks to potential recruits, authorities now have that card to play.

Equally, the reluctance to allow IDPs encamped in secondary towns like Bama to move around should be revised. The arguably marginal benefit in security which the ban on movement provides will be far outweighed by the humanitarian gains and goodwill generated by easing up this restriction. As an immediate measure, all those most in need should be allowed to temporarily move to Maiduguri or other cities where appropriate treatment is available.

‪While vigilante groups have done much to defend their communities, Borno state authorities should stop using these irregular forces to vet IDPs. Further, the Federal Government should begin to put in place a demobilisation process lest longer-term problems result, including increased risks of communal violence based on revenge between vigilante group members and displaced persons.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

International partners must drastically increase their humanitarian response, including by releasing all funds pledged to the UN and other humanitarian agencies for the emergency. They must lend greater support to the government, preferably in a high-level forum that includes the military, UN agencies, international NGOs, as well as local civil society and NGOs. This forum should provide a platform for all actors to share knowledge, including their assessments of the gravity of the humanitarian situation and areas of greatest needs as well as clarify guiding principles and improve working relations.

The Buhari administration for its part needs to be far more proactive. A clarification of its assistance framework is pressing, and senior officials need to make clear that they regard the unfolding humanitarian crisis as a first-order priority. The government should accelerate the implementation of its response, for instance in disbursing the 12 billion naira (about $41 million) which it announced, in May 2016, would be used to rebuild the north east and also in implementing the programs of the Victims Support Fund. It is also essential that accountability mechanisms are strengthened.

The authorities should not forget that they announced the North East Marshall Plan (Nemap) in October 2015 with the aim of providing “intermediate and long-term interventions in emergency assistance, economic reconstruction and development” – a vital component of efforts to bring peace to the region. The first action of this ambitious plan should target camps for the displaced. In order to rebuild state legitimacy, the authorities should scale down reliance on security forces to manage the camps and give greater room to civil authorities.

Finally, periodic visits by senior leaders, including President Buhari himself, to the camps and major communities hosting IDPs are essential to begin breaking down the suspicion faced by the newly displaced, and to affirm to them, as well as to state and government officials, that as Nigerian citizens and victims of the insurgency, they should not be left without food or medical assistance. Governor Shettima’s visits are welcome moves. He should make more and his fellow governors should follow his example. Without a visible and genuine commitment to providing the humanitarian support needed in these areas, insecurity will persist – and could become worse – and peace will remain far out of reach.

Contributors

Former Consulting Senior Analyst, West Africa
vincentfoucher
Director, Sahel Project
jhjezequel
Senior Adviser, Nigeria
NnamdiObasi
Inhabitants of La Bendición de Dios, an informal neighbourhood near Maicao, line up to receive water. Bram Ebus

Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border

As Venezuela’s economy plumbs the depths of collapse, a new cohort of refugees is trekking across parched landscapes to Colombia. It consists of the most vulnerable, including poor expectant mothers, unaccompanied children and the sick, people with no defence against the predations of armed bands.

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It is a measure of life’s hardships in Zulia state, the oil production hub in north-western Venezuela, that its people must brave lawless borders just to get to the hospital. Across the frontier, in Colombia, the San José de Maicao hospital is full of pregnant Venezuelan women, some of them sitting on the floor. One new mother I met there had arrived in the morning after traversing a trocha, an illegal crossing between the two countries, which have no diplomatic ties. She borrowed money to pay a shadowy armed band for safe passage, and once in the maternal ward, gave birth to a healthy daughter. She lay in bed, the baby in her arms, a bit bewildered at her good fortune. Infant mortality is high among refugee mothers, most of whom, like this young woman, receive no prenatal care. She got to San José de Maicao just in time for a safe, orderly delivery.

Such harrowing tales of flight have become common in Zulia. Hunger, power cuts and collapsing public services have turned this region – once accustomed to easy wealth and ice-cold air conditioning – into one of the areas of Venezuela suffering the greatest humanitarian need, according to the UN. The human rights NGO Codhez, based in Zulia, calculates that seven in ten households have daily incomes of $1.09 or less, meaning that families often cannot eat three meals a day. Its hospitals are at once rundown and prohibitively expensive for most Zulia residents because they now demand payment in dollars for basic services that were once free. The nearest escape valve is the Colombian border. More than 160,000 Venezuelans now live across it, in the Colombian state of La Guajira, after escaping their home country’s tumult.

But La Guajira, in Colombia’s far north east, is no sanctuary. More than half the population of this semi-arid desert state lives in poverty. With Venezuela to the east and the mountains of Perijá – a hotbed of guerrilla activity – to the south, La Guajira is in a double bind. It faces not only the humanitarian needs of migrants and refugees, who now make up roughly 19 per cent of the population, but also the violence of guerrillas, narcos and other men with guns who prey upon its very desperation.

The Border Crossing Boom

The only official crossing from Zulia into La Guajira brings new arrivals to the small village of Paraguachón. Movable metal barriers featuring the logo of Colombia’s migration office stand along the main road. Scrawny, malnourished Venezuelans, exhausted after their long trip, mingle with locals hawking basic medicines and food items. As in other Latin American border towns, the informal economy hums with activity, as porters trot by pushing handcarts piled with luggage, moneychangers offer stacks of bolívars to the few Venezuelans returning home and penniless migrants sell their hair to wig makers for a fistful of dollars.

For years already, contraband gasoline from Venezuela has been fueling the informal economy of La Guajira's border areas. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

But a lot more is going on in this particular border town. A nervous resident points out that various armed groups – narcos, guerrillas and others – rule Paraguachón. They have tightened their stranglehold on La Guajira’s border since 2015, when the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro closed the entire frontier in response to attacks on the Venezuelan army by unknown parties. Following the closure, the trochas became regular transit points and a gold mine for criminal gangs collecting informal tolls. The border reopened in 2016, but the illegal crossings retained their appeal to smugglers, traffickers, and the many migrants and refugees without identity papers.

Just a short distance from the official crossing in Paraguachón are two major trochas: la ochenta (the eighty) and la cortica (the short one). In plain view of Colombian police, motorbikes bearing jerrycans bump alongside old white Toyota pickups crammed with passengers and goods over the sandy roads to and from Venezuela.

A total of 90 trochas are located in Maicao, the municipality that includes Paraguachón. According to Colombia’s Ombudsman, an independent state agency charged with protecting civil and human rights, the number along the border between La Guajira and Zulia runs close to 200. At each of these points, criminals charge fees for passage, turning the trochas into big business and a trigger for competition with each other, as well as with state security forces. Aida Merlano, a fugitive Colombian parliamentarian wanted for electoral fraud, found refuge in Venezuela via a trocha in the La Guajira badlands. Three alleged al-Qaeda operatives arrested in January in the U.S. sneaked from Venezuela into Colombia using a similar route.

Contraband fuel is the economic mainstay on the Colombian side of the border.

Contraband fuel is the economic mainstay on the Colombian side of the border. With their faces covered in cloths or towels, adults and children, some no older than ten, wave funnels at passing cars while their skin burns under La Guajira’s merciless sun. They are engaged in pimpineo, the sale of dirt-cheap Venezuelan gasoline that is smuggled across the border in jerrycans (pimpinas in Spanish) and then poured straight into fuel tanks or retailed in soft drink bottles. In 2019 up to mid-November, Colombia’s Fiscal and Customs Police seized over 230,000 gallons of contraband fuel and confiscated about 300 vehicles along the La Guajira border. Still, trafficking continues unabated. 

Two indigenous Wayuu women agreed to meet to talk about smuggling fuel. They chose a discreet location, fearing violent reprisal from local gangs should they be seen conversing with a stranger. The smugglers, or pimpineros, use three courtyards on the Venezuelan side, to fill the jerrycans with gasoline, the women said. The fuelling station is located next to the local command building of the Venezuelan National Guard. “They [the National Guard] eat off us. They live from this”, one woman explains, adding that plainclothes Guard officers charge a fee on the contraband fuel, which costs about $1.50 per punto (5 litres), and $15 per pipa (60 litres).

A Surfeit of Crime

The stakes are high around the trochas. The smugglers recruit poor Wayuu children as moscas (flies) to look out for soldiers or police, giving them cellphones to sound the alarm. The children also carry guns, sometimes assault rifles, so that they, too, can collect the fees for safe passage. 

For ordinary civilians, the crossings have become more bane than boon. Recent arrivals in Colombia report that Venezuelan security forces and armed groups confronted them at several checkpoints in a single trip. One social worker based in Riohacha said women using the trochas risk sexual abuse, sometimes reaching their destination with their clothes ripped off. In a refugee shelter in Maicao, a distraught Venezuelan man told me that all his money was stolen when walking across. He had come to Colombia with his daughter, who has Down syndrome, in search of essential health care.

Many youngsters from the region are recruited by armed groups and criminal organizations. Some of them are posted along the border to work as 'moscas' and monitor the movements of border authorities. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Internecine violence makes matters worse. Criminal organisations and Wayuu clans collect fees from the traffic through various trochas, and often clash with each other in disputes over who is in control. Also joining the fray is the guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN), whose Luciano Ariza faction, part of the Northern War Front, engages in extortion and livestock smuggling further south along the border, toward the Perijá mountains.

The sheer variety of illicit business makes the rivalries even more pointed. Weapons, minerals and human beings are trafficked into Colombia, while drugs move in the opposite direction. “This is a continuous time bomb”, said one resident in Paraguachón. “The narcos and the guerrillas want control over the border, and the Wayuu, the owners of the territory, are involved in a war that only benefits the people who do not belong here”. Meanwhile, the breakdown in communication between the security forces on either side of the border makes it easy for criminals to dodge arrest or to hide out on whichever side is more hospitable to them. Locals say the police are paid off not to interfere.

A short distance from Paraguachón, on the Colombian side of the border, lies a rancheria, a Wayuu settlement, filled with victims of these border skirmishes. Around 35 huts built of logs and plastic sheeting house up to six families each. Some of the children are blond, a symptom of the malnutrition common in La Guajira. According to the World Food Programme, the basic needs of 90 per cent of the state’s rural population are unsatisfied.

The children began getting trapped in shoot-outs.

All the Wayuu in the hamlet recently decided to leave their homes on the Venezuelan side of the border after teachers in the local schools walked out over low wages and never came back. To continue their education, the Wayuu children had to attend classes on the Colombian side. At first, they crossed the trochas every day. But then, the local Wayuu leader explained, the children began getting trapped in shoot-outs between armed factions and security forces. So all the families relocated.

“The Zone”

The most notorious armed outfit to have operated in the area was a relative upstart. La Zona (The Zone) undertook a swift and brutal expansion before its equally rapid demise. Along Zulia’s borders, and especially in the Venezuelan town of Guarero, the gang is accused of distributing lists of names and pictures of young people associated with other gangs or with no known affiliation. They were all marked for death, and according to a woman from Guarero, most of them were in fact killed. In an October 2019 report, the Colombian Ombudsman pointed to mass displacement from the town, with entire Wayuu families running away lest La Zona attack them or target their children for recruitment.

“The neighbours left”, said a Wayuu woman from the town who fled to Colombia. “Guarero is abandoned. Many people have gone far away to protect their lives”. She agreed to meet me in the dusty backyard of the Maicao family that employs her as a maid. It was the evening, and the oven-like daytime heat had finally subsided. Sitting on a plastic chair, she shooed the insects attracted by the flickering light bulb away from her face. Starting in early 2018, she stated, La Zona killed more than 100 people from the town, including her nephew, who was shot execution-style in broad daylight. The killers drove away afterward without impediment, she said; in fact, the Venezuelan National Guard stopped traffic to clear their way. “This happened in front of many people”, she declared in disbelief.

From mid-2019, however, La Zona met with a far more ruthless response from both Venezuelan security forces and other armed groups, both of which resented the criminal outfit’s rise and coveted its border revenues. “All [the Venezuelan] security forces started to look for the leaders of La Zona in their houses, and they have been carrying out extrajudicial killings”, said a human rights defender based in Zulia. “They ran away over the savannahs, and now they are stealing to survive”, added a Guarero local.

The Colombian ELN guerrillas have taken the opportunity to increase their presence in Zulia. A refugee in Maicao indicated that the insurgents move only at night and hand out pamphlets in the villages they visit. The guerrillas have sought to hold meetings in Wayuu rancherias, and sworn to combat La Zona and its predatory offshoots. In the eyes of the Wayuu woman from Guarero, they could be a solution to the region’s problems, since they claim to want to protect the people.

Surrounded by handcarts, a soldier patrols the road that connects Paraguachón with Venezuela. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Refugees

Violence, poverty, hunger and the need for basic public services are driving people out of Zulia. Aid institutions in La Guajira regard the incoming migrants and refugees as fundamentally different from those of previous years. The first migrant wave comprised wealthy people with passports, headed for Florida, Panama, Spain and other international destinations. By 2016-2017, many middle-income families were joining the well-off in exile, travelling to South American nations such as Colombia, Chile and Peru. In the third phase, around 2018, people lacking passports and the money to travel began trekking across the border to their destinations. They became known as los caminantes (the walkers).

The exodus of the sick and unwell [has begun].

But in La Guajira, arguably, a fourth phase has begun: the exodus of the sick and unwell. Each day people arrive with worse health conditions, including chronic diseases and mental disorders, a local social worker explained to me. Many of these extremely vulnerable people are stuck after criminals or corrupt Venezuelan officials stole their belongings, money and identity papers – or they simply had no money to begin with. In a refugee shelter in Maicao, the courtyard filled up with refugees drowning out each other’s voices to tell me their stories. A woman from Maracaibo complained with evident distress that she cannot reach her family in Barranquilla, Colombia – less than 300km away – after she was robbed of all her possessions in a trocha.

For those who get stuck, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has set up a reception centre with space for 600 people, but the waiting list is long – over 4,000 at present. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans end up in informal settlements on the outskirts of towns such as Riohacha, Maicao and Uribia, where naked children with scabies play in the dirt and men walk for kilometres to haul back jerrycans of water for household needs. There is no electricity or sewage disposal. Most of the time, the inhabitants tell me, they have too little food to eat three meals a day.

For lack of a better alternative, many Venezuelans stay in these camps for some time. According to Miguel Romo, director of the Colombian migration authority’s local branch, La Guajira is unprepared for the influx. The state government has little money, and it is dogged by corruption charges: there have been thirteen governors in the last eight years, many of whom have faced serious allegations of graft. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the Venezuelans are unlikely to leave La Guajira, and thus humanitarian aid risks becoming “a bottomless barrel”.

Many Venezuelans that cross from Zulia state into La Guajira get stuck in informal settlements in the arid region. The lack of possibilities to pay for further transport makes La Guajira a bottleneck in which many migrants and refugees are stuck. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

The informal economy – including organised crime – absorbs Venezuelans without the means to move further inland or abroad. Exploitation and death are commonplace. Maicao is one of the most dangerous towns in La Guajira, with a murder rate over twice the national average. “We are in an environment where there are no mourners”, said a woman in Maicao who runs a foundation working with vulnerable children and women. There are so many deaths, she explains, that the living have no time to grieve. In October 2019, the Colombian police broke up a criminal network run by Venezuelans and Colombians that forced underage boys and girls into sexual slavery. Many Venezuelans, including unaccompanied minors, sleep on thin squares of cardboard in shop or office doorways. Rapes occur nightly, according to the foundation manager. “Everything has broken down here”, she said.

Local hospitals, meanwhile, are thronged with Venezuelans, who according to a doctor in Maicao make up around 70 to 80 per cent of incoming patients, some of them with conditions such as tuberculosis and HIV in terminal stages. The hospitals in La Guajira are not prepared to give the complex care that people with such illnesses require, and there is no money to transport the Venezuelan patients to better-equipped facilities elsewhere. In theory, emergency rooms should take in Venezuelans without documentation, but an aid worker admitted that many do not receive treatment. Since 2014, a Colombian migration official said, more than 100 corpses have been left unclaimed in the Riohacha morgue by families who cannot afford to pay for repatriation. 

Along with the ill and the dying come the newborn. Beside the new mother I met in the San José de Maicao hospital were numerous other pregnant Venezuelan women who were unable to give birth in Zulia’s hospitals, which often cannot perform a caesarean-style delivery, and which are now charging patients in dollars for surgical gloves, gauze pads, anaesthetic and other medical gear. The government is supposed to provide such items – indeed, all health care – for free in Venezuela. An obstetrician explains that pregnant 13- or 14-year-olds are a common sight.

“We are working blind”, says the doctor. About 80 per cent of Venezuelan women have no passport, and the poorer young women coming here are even less likely to have one. The lack of affordable prenatal care in Venezuela means that most reach the hospital in La Guajira without the vital information such checkups provide about the general health of mother and baby.

Responding to the Flight

La Guajira cannot cope with all the stranded Venezuelans’ demands. Until it is able to offer adequate employment, the black market will continue to flourish – and the attendant violence to rise – in trochas such as those around Paraguachón.

At the same time, the scale of the economic calamity in Venezuela – where dollarisation and the scrapping of import and price controls have benefited only a tiny minority in Caracas – means that Venezuelans will continue to arrive in La Guajira without the money to travel any farther. Until Venezuela’s government and opposition make progress toward a negotiated settlement that allows the economy to stabilise, foreign donors should step up their investment in health care and social services for migrants and refugees. Colombian government figures indicate that outsiders have given $397 million to tackle the Venezuelan migration crisis over the past two years, even though the UN emergency call for 2019 alone asked for nearly twice that sum. Of the total, the EU and European countries have contributed 44 per cent, of which 11 per cent comes from EU donations.

Life is harsh in La Guajira, and that affects everyone – not just the Venezuelan newcomers. Donors should help make the above services available to Colombian residents as well. If international aid serves the Venezuelans alone, the Colombians could react with xenophobic outrage, feeling that they are being treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

Until conditions improve for migrants, refugees and residents, violent crime will continue to afflict the border area. An uncontrolled frontier with no cooperation between security forces is a bonanza for organised crime and an ordeal for the defenceless. The two countries could doubtless contain the criminality far more effectively if they could find a way to mend the bilateral relations that they severed early last year. No amount of diplomatic point scoring can justify the pain that all these people are suffering.

There are two informal border crossings, or “trochas”, that connect with Paraguachón, called “la ochenta” and “la cortica”. Cars carrying contraband goods slowly bump up and down the sandy roads. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus