Bogota, Colombia – Richard de Jesus walked along a highway leading out of Colombia’s capital city, along with his pregnant wife. They carried their belongings on a small baby stroller covered by a sheet of cardboard that read: “We are going back to Venezuela … any help you can give us will be a great blessing.”
The couple said they had been on the road for five days, travelling about 400km (248 miles) from Cali, where they started their journey. They had more than 600km (373 miles) to go before reaching the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
“There is nothing left for us to do here” said de Jesus, a Venezuelan migrant who had been living in Cali for the past year selling sweets on buses. A three-week lockdown imposed by Colombia to slow the spread of the coronavirus left him without any customers, and with no cash to spare.
“We were going to be evicted from our apartment,” he told Al Jazeera. “What could I offer my wife and child if we stayed?”
Thousands of Venezuelan migrants who work in the informal economy have lost their jobs – and in some cases been evicted from their homes – as Colombia and other nearby countries impose strict social distancing measures.
With no other options, some are starting to make the journey back to Venezuela on foot or rides from cargo trucks as their savings give out and they find no other options to return to Venezuela. Public transport between cities has been shut down in Colombia due to the coronavirus lockdown.
‘Tough road ahead’
The groups of Venezuelans now trudging along Colombia’s roads underscore how vulnerable migrant workers have become during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those heading home must now cross through several humid tropical valleys, a steep canyon and a freezing plateau, located 4,000m above sea level, to make it to the Venezuelan border.
“We realise that there’s a tough road ahead,” said Christian Garcia, a construction worker who lost his job as the lockdown began, who was walking towards his hometown of San Cristobal in Venezuela. “But in Venezuela, we will not have to pay rent.”
Alba Pereira, a humanitarian worker who runs a soup kitchen for migrants in the city of Bucaramanga – one of the main stops on route to the Venezuelan border – said that last week, at least 400 migrants and refugees had slept in a local park, begging authorities to get them buses to cover the most difficult leg of the journey.
Colombia’s national immigration agency said that early on Saturday more than 500 Venezuelans in Bucaramanga were loaded on “at least 20 buses” provided by the government that took them through the 4,000m high Berlin Plateau and down into the steamy border town of Cucuta, where they were escorted by police into Venezuela.
But migrants who return to Venezuela will not have it easy when they get home. Nicolas Maduro’s government has also imposed a national lockdown, after reporting more than 150 cases of COVID-19. That number could quickly increase thanks to economic and political crises that have devastated the country for years.
Basic necessities like soap are out of reach for many Venezuelans. Some do not have water at home to wash their hands. According to a study conducted last year by the World Food Programme, four out of 10 homes in Venezuela suffered from daily water cuts. The public health system is short of doctors and nurses, as thousands have left the country due to low salaries. Food distribution has been hampered by severe shortages of gasoline.
Nevertheless, Pereira estimates that at least another 3,500 migrants are on their way to Venezuela this week. And those numbers could grow, she said.
“People are being evicted and are losing their income,” Pereira told Al Jazeera. “There will be a steady flow of people coming through.”
More than 4.7 million people have left Venezuela since 2015, according to the United Nations, with many fleeing poverty, food and medicine shortages, crime, hyperinflation and political and economic crises.
About a third of these migrants and refugees settled in Colombia, with large numbers also in Peru, Ecuador and Chile.
Approximately 60 percent of Venezuelans living in Colombia have no work visas or legal resident status, which makes them particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
Hugh Aprile, the Colombia director for Mercy Corps, said humanitarian groups working in the country were trying to help these undocumented workers by ramping up cash distribution programmes.
Mercy Corps, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and World Vision are currently prepared to provide debit cards to 100,000 Venezuelans through the end of the year, Aprile said. He added that his organisation was doubling payments this month to help migrants and refugees cope with the crisis.
“It’s going to be a difficult time for everyone working in the informal economy” Aprile said. “Migrant populations are particularly vulnerable because they are in temporary housing situations that demand they make money in short cycles.”
Colombia’s government last week revealed a six-point plan for the Venezuelan migrant population that included guaranteeing access to health services and distributing food to about 800,000 migrants in 40 municipalities.
But there is no specific plan to help those facing eviction from their homes. In Bogota, which is home to more than 400,000 Venezuelan migrants, officials have fined tenants who evict vulnerable people. But evictions continue to happen according to community leaders, and the mayor said on Thursday that there was no money to help migrants pay for rent.
“We need more support from the national government,” Bogota mayor Claudia Lopez said. “We already cover the health and educational expenses of thousands of migrants. We help them with daycare, with jobs. I’m sorry but we cannot pay their rent.”