Thousands of people fleeing Venezuela’s deepening economic crisis have rushed towards the Peruvian border before the introduction of new rules making it harder to cross into the country.
As of 05:00 GMT on Saturday, Venezuelans are required to show valid passports instead of national ID cards to enter – although Peruvian authorities are reported to be “flexible” with children, the elderly and pregnant women.
Up to 4,000 people have been arriving daily in recent weeks in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil, heading south to escape Venezuela’s political turmoil and economic meltdown which has seen inflation skyrocket and public services fail amid chronic food and medicine shortages.
Peru, one of the region’s fastest-growing economies with 4.7 percent growth projected for next year, is a particularly popular destination, with an estimated 400,000 Venezuelans already living there.
But a rising backlash to Venezuelan migrants prompted this week the introduction of the tougher border controls in Peru – as did in Ecuador, though a judge there on Friday rolled back the passport regulations.
As Saturday’s deadline approached, thousands – some carrying small children – poured into Peru’s border with Ecuador by any transport means possible, with many travelling on foot.
“This is very sad,” Joander Perez, a 15-year-old Venezuelan who travelled more than 4,000km with members of his family, told Al Jazeera at the border.
“We were at the best time of our lives, with friends, school, family but we have to leave to find a better life,” he added.
“In Venezuela we were hungry.”
The United Nations has described the exodus of Venezuelans to neighbouring countries as a “crisis moment” comparable to events involving refugees in the Mediterranean.
And although numbers are alarming, this is not a new phenomenon, experts said.
“This started in 2002, when only the wealthy people migrated from Venezuela,” Ronal Rodriguez, a professor and researcher at the Venezuelan Observatory, a think-tank at the University of Rosario in Colombia, told Al Jazeera.
“In 2007, we saw the migration of the middle class. But from 2015, onwards, we have seen the migration of the popular sectors,” he added.
“The ones that take the roads – even risking their own lives.”
Ecuador opened a “humanitarian corridor” on Friday and lifted its own entry restrictions to facilitate the Venezuelans’ travel to Peru.
Interior Minister Mauro Toscanini said that 35 busloads of migrants were on the move along the route authorities had opened to Peru.
More than 2,500 migrants arrived at the small Aguas Verdes crossing on Friday – 10 times the usual daily traffic.
“People keep on pouring into this border,” Al Jazeera’s Mariana Sanchez, reporting from Peru’s crossing with Ecuador, said on Saturday.
“Many believe that the Ecuadorean government does not want [Venezuelan people] to stay in Ecuador, because they were forced onto the busses – and even if people want to stay back there, they are being forced to come all the way here,” she added.
“Authorities [however] have said they will be flexible with people that have small children, elderly and pregnant women to allow them in without a passport,” she added.
Sanchez said on Saturday that those at the border without a valid passport were applying for asylum, “the only option that they have to be able to enter the country legally”.
Of the 2.3 million Venezuelans living abroad, more than 1.6 million have fled the country since 2015, according to UN figures.
Colombia says it has already given temporary residence to 870,000 Venezuelans but it can barely cope.
It has pleaded with its southern neighbours to agree to a combined migration strategy, while Ecuador has called a meeting of 13 Latin American countries next month to discuss the crisis.
“From all countries, Colombia is the one that is taking the worst hit, we cannot ask the population to go back,” Rodriguez, the professor, said.
“Every day we receive pregnant women that require medical assistance. Turning them back is sentencing them to death, we need to respond and find spaces in societies that are feasible for them,” he added.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will set up a special team to ensure a coordinated regional response, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Venezuela is in a fourth straight year of recession, with double-digit declines in its gross domestic product. The inflation rate is expected to reach an astonishing one million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Under President Nicolas Maduro’s leadership, the industry is operating at only 30 percent, hit hard by the crash in oil prices since 2014 in a country that earns 96 percent of its revenue from crude.
In efforts to boost the economy and tame the rampant hyperinflation, Maduro and his government on August 20 rolled out a new currency, slashing five zeroes from the bolivar.
The new bolivar, which will be in circulation alongside the old currency during a transitional period, will be pegged to the country’s state-backed cryptocurrency, the petro.
“This change has generated huge uncertainty among Venezuelans, and people are not having easy access to the new currency,” Rodriguez said.
“All the paper money [new and old] look very similar, creating huge confusion, all of them are labelled as Bolivares, so now the citizens don’t know if they are using the right money or not”
“This situation has made incredibly difficult for Venezuelans to receive the remittances, creating huge chaos, this change is what ultimately motivated people to flee the country,” he added.
Maduro, who says that he is the victim of a US-led “economic war” designed to sabotage his administration through sanctions, said that using the petro will abolish the “tyranny” of the dollar and lead to an economic rebirth in Venezuela.
Other measures recently introduced by the government include a loosening of foreign capital rules and a massive increase in the minimum wage.
But despite these moves, the pace of departures has accelerated in recent days.
“It’s sad – I graduated with a bachelor degree, now I can’t begin my career in law,” Zenalis Rodriguez, a Venezuelan at the Peruvian-Ecuadorean border, told Al Jazeera.
“We all gave up our future – in Venezuela we don’t have a chance.”
As the exodus continues, many fear the crisis will not end any time soon.
“Even if Maduro falls tomorrow, that doesn’t mean people will go back – people won’t go back to a country that is highly unstable,” said Rodriguez.
“This situation will transform Latin America, and it will last many years. A joint response will be required, Latin America will need to work as a region,” he added.
“These people will need to be absorbed and assumed, and the countries will need to come up with instruments that aid them and regulatory mechanisms to sort this crisis out.”
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Melimopoulos: @