Searching for refuge in Venezuela

Many Colombians seeking refugee status lack information on how to do it and fear being deported.

Colombia and Venezuela share a 2,000km-long border that is extremely difficult to patrol.

Many analyst think it’s one of the most porous borders in the Western Hemisphere.

Along it, a tangled reality of rebel groups, oil interests, and gangs hop back and forth smuggling drugs, cheap Venezuelan petrol and weapons.

But the region is also a recipient of hundreds of thousands of Colombians families fleeing violence from the 50-year-old conflict affecting the South American country.

The UN refugees office in Colombia invited us to the border town of Arauca, the capital city of the Colombian department by the same name. A river, also called Arauca, divides the two countries here.

A bridge represents the only legal crossing, but as we arrived we saw dozens of small motorboats bringing into Colombia all sorts of goods. Sugar, cooking oil, rice, even a mattress, and cans full of Venezuelan subsidized fuel.

Roughly 200,000 Colombians have arrived in Venezuela seeking refuge in the last decade. Only 3,000 of them have actually acquired international refugee status, while many more live as internal displaced people along the border.

Displaced families

Petra Heusser, of the local UN refugee office, told us that most people here have been displaced “many times inside Colombia before arriving to the border region”.

Crossing into Venezuela seems to be the last resort after having tried to restart their life in their country over and over again.

We met families who fled their homes to escape fighting between the government and the FARC, others that were kicked out from their land by paramilitaries or rebel groups. A woman left her hometown with her sons when FARC members killed her father and tried to forcibly recruit the children.

Louis Montoya, a farmer from the department of Vichada, has known violence all his life. He says he was first displaced when he was still in his mother’s womb. His family had to abandon their farm during Colombia’s civil war of the 1950s.

Then, as an adult, many of his family members were killed in different occasions by paramilitaries.

“One day the paramilitaries arrived and killed dozens of people in town,” Montoya said.

“They accused them of aiding the rebels. So they killed them and cut them into pieces. Among them was my son. I recogniaed him only because of a mole on what was left of his face.”

‘No way to progress’

Each time Montoya tried hard to restart his life in Colombia until he gave up and managed to cross into Venezuela.

“One arrives in a town, settles down, starts working, then violence arrives and you have to leave,” he said.

“You find another place, just to have to leave again. There is no way to progress.”

Montoya was fortunate enough to be given refugee status and now lives in the town of Guasdualito, in Venezuela. There he built a wood house and a small vegetable garden on donated land.

He says he’s found peace there for the first time in his life.

“Many Venezuelan ask me if I want to go back,” he says.

“It hurts my soul but no, I don’t want to go back. I’m done with it.”

Living in limbo

For every Louis Montoya, thousands of Colombians never apply for refugee status. Many lack information on how to do it and what help is there available for them. Also fear of being deported, real or not, comes into play.

For those living in the limbo, smuggling cheap Venezuelan goods is often the only way to make a living.

Clara Luna Moreno, a local public defender, says that many of the displaced are farmers who can’t find a job in the city.

“They are used to growing crops and there’s no space to do that here,” she says.

“They often don’t have documents and need to prove they have been displaced. So smuggling becomes an option. These people need to eat.”

Now that the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) started peace talks in Havana, Cuba, many hope that the daily flow of Colombian seeking respite from the conflict will abate.

FARC also called for a two-month unilateral ceasefire but so far nothing much has changed.

The Colombian government says that bringing back people who have been terrorised for decades is a priority. But a trip to the border region reveals that unless people’s fears are overcome or real peace achieved doing it will remain a daunting task.