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World

Pandemic Puts Economic Pressure On Venezuelans Who Fled To Colombia

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly 2 million Venezuelans fled to Colombia to escape a devastating economic crisis. But Colombia's coronavirus lockdown has thrown many of these migrants out of work, and now some are trying to get back home. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Yordelis Garcia (ph) and her family can't afford bus fare back to Venezuela, so they're walking.

YORDELIS GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: I meet them on the side of the main highway out of Bogota, where Yordelis has paused to give her 2-year-old son, Wilker (ph), a drink of water. Back on the road, Yordelis pushes Wilker in a baby stroller. Her 8-year-old twins pull roller suitcases. Meanwhile, her husband struggles with a homemade cart piled high with their belongings.

(SOUNDBITE OF CART ROLLING)

OTIS: One of its wheels is broken, so the metal cart scrapes along the pavement. The family had been scraping by in Colombia operating a bicycle taxi, but their meager income dried up as Colombia locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Explaining their decision to leave, Yordelis says, "the landlord was pressuring us for rent. We could no longer afford food for the kids."

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Since the coronavirus outbreak, tens of thousands of Venezuelans are thought to have returned home. That number could surge because most migrants here are day laborers who, if they don't work, don't eat. Things have gotten so bad that half of all Venezuelan migrants in Colombia face malnutrition or starvation, according to a new report from the World Food Program. The Colombian government has promised them emergency food and has ordered landlords not to evict them during the pandemic, but the decree isn't being enforced.

DEYSON PADRON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Deyson Padron (ph), who heads a Bogota group that helps Venezuelan migrants, says they're being kicked out of apartments and rooming houses in droves and have received no government aid. Yet the journey back to Venezuela is also an ordeal. Nearly all flights and intercity buses in Colombia have been halted, so many start walking in hopes of hitching a ride. Others are chartering buses for the 450-mile trip to the border.

I come across five of the buses. They've been pulled over by police who fear the passengers could spread the virus. In fact, these buses have hit so many roadblocks that, after 24 hours, they've barely made it to the outskirts of Bogota, from where they departed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "The Colombians don't want us here, yet they don't want us to leave," says this exasperated passenger, not that things will be a whole lot better if they make it to their homeland. For starters, they'll be quarantined for two weeks. Then they'll have to contend with Venezuela's hyperinflation, unemployment and shortages of gas, food and medicine. But passenger Reynaldo Sala (ph) points out that in Venezuela, they can live rent free with relatives.

REYNALDO SALA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: And he adds, "if we're going to go hungry, at least we'll go hungry with our loved ones." For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "WINTER 2011") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.