Tulcan, Ecuador – Jorge Briceno made it 1,400km across Colombia after fleeing his home in Venezuela more than a week ago. After exiting Colombia on Saturday, he was just metres from the Ecuadorian town of Tulcan, before he found himself stuck with an encampment of migrants who were huddled at the border checkpoint as nightfall approached.
By midday Sunday, the number of Venezuelans in the 200-metre stretch between the Ecuadorian and Colombian borders swelled to nearly 1,000, owing to Ecuador’s recent decision to block them from passing through its territory unless they had valid passports.
Briceno, like many bottle-necked migrants, left everything behind.
He quit his job, sold his motorcycle and left his family before setting out on the journey to Peru, where friends planned to help him find a job to make enough money to bring his wife and children.
Briceno and others say returning to the poverty and violence in Venezuela isn’t an option.
“To return is to die. If we have to die here looking for a better life for our families, then we’ll die. It’s better than dying in Venezuela [and] not doing anything,” Briceno told Al Jazeera. “We won’t return.”
According to the UN, an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, when oil prices suddenly dropped. Venezuela is now suffering from hyperinflation as it continues to reel from food and medical shortages, as well as a political crisis that has left much of the country polarised.
Since July, more than 4,000 Venezuelans have passed from Colombia to Ecuador across the Rumichaca border crossing a day, according to Colombia’s migration authority.
While many South American countries offered to take those fleeing economic hardship or political persecution, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno told local media on Saturday that “everything has a limit”. He added that Venezuelans without passports “simply will not be allowed to come in”.
The new passport rules came after Ecuador declared a state of emergency last week over the influx of migrants.
Many Venezuelans have been unable to obtain passports, owing, in part, to the fact their country has all but stopped issuing them due to shortages of ink and paper, but also due to the severe decay of its bureaucratic institutions. Those who can afford it, have paid fees and brides upwards of $2,000 to get a new passport, but for most in Venezuela, where the average monthly wage is about $1 a day, buying the official document is simply not an option.
According to Colombia’s migration authority, up to half the Venezuelans travelling through Colombia do not have a passport. Colombia has allowed Venezuelans to enter with paper ID cards instead. Until this week, Ecuador had done the same.
On Friday, Christian Kruger, Colombia’s migration chief, protested Ecuador’s decision to require passports for passage at its border.
“We can’t think that if we ask to see passports that the migration will end. When we have a migration motivated by hunger, it will not end,” he told reporters.
“Within a few days, we’re going to see a very large population in those places [along the Ecuadorian border].”
By midday on Sunday, Kruger’s prediction appeared to be right.
Hundreds had massed at the border and more were expected to arrive overnight.
Shivering and restless, many said they have been eating bread and crackers for a week.
Among them was Caterene Gomez, who had spent two weeks walking and hitchhiking through Colombia to reach Ecuador on her way to Peru, where she said a cousin was waiting for her.
“I left my whole life behind,” said 32-year-old Gomez, wrapped in a blanket as she spoke. “If they say we can’t continue, we’ll just walk anyway.”
A group of several dozen Venezuelans, many of them agitated by new passport policy, did just that, walking with their suitcases in tow across the border and up the mountainous highway leading about 800km across Ecuador to Peru. Officials warn that if they try to leave Ecuador without a valid entry stamp or passport, they may be fined or detained.
UNHCR expressed concern over the new passport rules, saying it may force more migrants to take more dangerous routes to other countries, or they may fall victim to human traffickers or armed groups.
“The magnitude of the situation really requires a regional and comprehensive approach,” said Yukiko Iriyama, UNHCR deputy representative. She told Al Jazeera that UNHCR was working with Ecuadorian authorities to arrange passage for those at the border, but an agreement had not been made yet.
Most at the border waited in limbo, saying attempting to cross Ecuador without documents was too risky and turning back to Venezuela was too expensive.
Many worry they won’t make it to Peru before next Saturday, when it too will shut its borders to those without passports.
“We need them to fix this problem,” said Miguel Romeo, 46, a former police officer from San Felipe, Venezuela.
“They can’t close the door on us.”