Bogota, Colombia – Jenifer Torealba arrived at Colombia’s first migrant tent camp on Tuesday after walking eight days with her six-year-old daughter from their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela, only to find the gate closed.
The camp, the first of it its kind in a country that has long weathered the rising tide of Venezuelan migration, had opened just hours before.
It was already at capacity, forcing Torealba and her daughter, Moiera, to sleep outside.
The 78-tent camp was built only for the nearly 500 migrants who had for months inhabited a growing shanty town near the city’s main bus station. Once they were relocated, the gates were shut.
“It was never considered that everyone who arrives here could keep getting in and keep getting in,” said Juan Carlos Diaz, director of risk management for the Bogota mayor’s office, as he overlooked the new tent camp.
Of the more than one million documented Venezuelans in Colombia, about 240,000 are in Bogota. Many, fleeing their country’s crippling economy, violence, political persecution and food and medicine shortages, arrive in Colombia on foot without a peso in hand.
Colombia had long avoided raising tent cities to house Venezuelans. Authorities worried it would incentivise migration or leave them responsible for a large population.
But a burgeoning informal encampment in Bogota finally left them no choice. The new camp, scheduled to operate until January, marks the first time that the flow of people out of Venezuela has pushed Colombian authorities to open a massive city-funded shelter.
“Large cities are resisting opening temporary shelters because they could become a magnet for large inflows,” said Marianne Menijvar, Colombia director for the International Rescue Committee. “Quite clearly having large numbers of migrant Venezuelans with children sleeping in the street is a public safety issue for Venezuelans.”
This month, the UN announced that more than three million Venezuelans have left their country since 2014.
In the first nine months of 2018 along, more than 770,000 Venezuelans entered Colombia, up about 400 percent from the 185,000 that entered in all of 2017.
“The Colombian government is overwhelmed, they need international assistance,” Menijvar said.
The migration is only expected to continue. Venezuela is stuck in a “rapidly descending spiral”, said Phil Gunson, Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. Food scarcity is deepening and public utilities like water and electricity continue to deteriorate.
“People talk about their relatives and friends who have left. People ask each other, ‘why are you still here, why haven’t you left?'” Gunson said. “It’s constantly on people’s mind.”
Torealba made the decision to leave with her daughter because she was unable to buy food.
The migration has already sparked violence in Brazil and spurred a standoff at the Ecuadorian border. Tent cities have sprung up for Venezuelans in Brazil and Peru, but Colombia’s primary tactic has been encouraging Venezuelans to move on to their destinations across the continent.
Many have nowhere to go, however, and over the summer a few Venezuelans began to camp in a wooded plot beside Bogota’s main bus terminal.
By the time Jean Carlos Gonzalez arrived in August, the 24-year-old former nurse from Maracaibo found about 50 people residing there. He also pitched his tent. He begged for change at local traffic lights and cooked rice or lentils over a fire at night.
“We were peaceful at first, then crazy people started to come,” he said. “Every day more people arrived until there were like 400.”
The encampment began to spill out of the lot. Eventually, tents made of recycled plastics lined the train tracks and city streets for several blocks. Dozens of campfires burned each night. Some robberies and fights were reported.
“You simply can’t have people living in the street,” said Mario Ferrera, 62, an accountant and a resident of the area. “They ruined their own country and now it is our problem.”
He said Colombia struggled with its own poverty and that national resources shouldn’t go to support a foreign population.
While many Colombians share Ferrera’s sentiment, others do not and Colombia has continued to welcome Venezuelans, granting them access to education and emergency healthcare and allowing them into the country undocumented.
On Tuesday morning, city authorities swept into the informal encampment, took a census of the migrants and relocated them by bus to the new tent city, located on a football field less than a kilometre away. Those living in the camp must check in and out with guards if they wish to leave, and the gates are shut from 6pm-6am every day.
On Wednesday, smoke from a few cooking fires rose above the camp’s fencing. Authorities set up supplies of water and power and were distributing blankets.
“This will close in three months,” said Diaz with the mayor’s office, looking over the camp. “They have three months to figure out what they are going to do. They can go on their way to Ecuador or Peru or they can work.”
Outside the camp, several dozen Venezuelans, including Torealba and Moiera, waited with hopes of getting in.
A city employee in a bright red uniform came through the gate to explain that no one else would be allowed entry; only those recorded in the Tuesday morning census could stay there.
“My daughter slept on the street last night and we were cold,” Torealba said, weeping. “Isn’t there space for women with children?”
The employee apologised and walked back through the gate. But later she returned and quietly led Torealba inside.
Authorities issued her a bed and blanket for her and her daughter and welcomed her to camp.
But they warned that she had three months to find somewhere else to stay.