Venezuelans stranded as Ecuador imposes new visa rules

Ecuador latest country to impose visa restrictions on Venezuelans fleeing political, economic and humanitarian crises.

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    Venezuelans stranded as Ecuador imposes new visa rules
    Eric Rafael Rodriguez expresses frustration over new visa rules at the Ecuador-Colombia border [Joshua Collins/Al Jazeera]

    Rumichaca, Colombia - Eric Rafael Rodriguez had been on the road for 10 days, walking and hitchhiking from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, when he said he and his girlfriend were robbed at knife-point in Tangua, Colombia.

    "They took everything we had - food, money, everything. We made it here before they closed the border, but now it doesn't matter. We don't even have IDs any more," he said, wrapped in an old blanket to ward off the frigid temperature in the Colombian town of Rumichaca, which borders Ecuador. Rodriguez's girlfriend, Deisy, wore sandals held together with duct tape.

    They were part of a wave of migrants rushing to reach the border of Ecuador before the implementation of strict new visa requirements. Now, like hundreds of others here, they find themselves stranded. They plan to cross between official ports of entry and to continue on to Lima, Peru.

    Ecuador on Monday joined Peru and Chile in restricting Venezuelan immigration. To enter the country, Venezuelans now need to provide a criminal record, apply for a visa before arrival and present a valid passport. As the deadline neared, many Venezuelans in Ecuador rushed home to retrieve family members. Thousands more rushed east from their homes in Venezuela, eager to start a life in Ecuador that would soon be much harder to achieve.

    The last-minute wave sowed chaos for immigration officials on both sides of the Ecuador-Colombia border. 

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    Migrants waited hours in bitterly cold temperatures as they navigated immigration processes. Temperatures dropped to six degrees Celsius and many slept huddled together in blankets as they queued, in some cases overnight.

    Colombian migration officials did not know the exact number of Venezuelans who crossed before the border closed on Sunday, but a director at the Rumichaca office told Al Jazeera that more than 11,000 Venezuelans had crossed as of 6pm, well before the midnight deadline.

    According to Colombian immigration officials on the Venezuelan border in Cucuta, there are still more on the way.

    The land-race for Venezuelans wishing to make it to Ecuador before the deadline was visible on the border. The number of migrants swelled considerably on Saturday evening as many arrived by bus and on foot. By Sunday, the queue to cross into Ecuador stretched into the motor lanes of the highway, blocking traffic on both sides of the road.

    Venezuelans - Ecuador [Joshua Collins/Al Jazeera]
    Thousands of Venezuelans raced to the Colombian-Ecuadoran border before a Monday deadline for new visa requirements in Ecuador [Joshua Collins/Al Jazeera] 

    Red Cross and Colombian health officials distributed water, food, hot chocolate and aluminium blankets to those waiting on the Colombian side.

    The chaos was not limited just to Colombia as masses of migrants huddled in Ecuador as well, waiting to be processed.

    Requirements beyond reach

    Ronald Alarcon, 28, was crossing with his wife, two children and his mother early Sunday morning. He has been working in Ecuador for over a year and is one of few Venezuelans fortunate enough to have obtained a passport - the rest of his family carried only cedulas, Venezuelan national identification cards.

    Passports can cost several months salary for most Venezuelans, though many migrants told Al Jazeera the actual price is much higher when one factors in necessary bribes of $100 to $300.

    In a country where the monthly minimum wage has fallen to below $5, that is beyond the reach of most Venezuelans. 

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    "I had to go back and get my family. When I heard about the changes in Ecuador I knew I couldn't wait," he said. "Only my grandmother now remains in Valencia."

    She refuses to leave Venezuela and survives off of the remittances he sends her from his salary in Ecuador.

    "It doesn't matter how bad it gets," he said. "She will never leave. It's all she knows."

    'Hunger is more powerful than Ecuadorian law'

    For those who missed the deadline, the next step seems uncertain.

    A young family arrived at the border just after midnight, with three children in tow. Construction on the highway north of Rumichaca had delayed their arrival. They stared forlornly at the empty Colombian immigration office and the few remaining vendors on the closed frontier.

    Luis Torres, a Venezuelan street merchant in the area approached them and offered help. He told them about a nearby refuge for migrants, gave them a bit of food and explained how to find the informal paths across the border.

    Venezuelans - Ecuador [Joshua Collins/Al Jazeera]
    Venezuelans wait in line at the Colombia-Ecuador border [Joshua Collins/Al Jazeera] 

    Luis told Al Jazeera that the irregular paths are generally safe for migrants but police in nearby Ipiales worry about the days to come. They say that the tighter restrictions are likely to cause more migrants to cross informally, and as they do so they will be vulnerable to the criminal groups who control the smuggling paths.

    "This new law might scare some people away in the long-term," said Torres. "But desperate people will find a way. My country is in ruins. Look around, these people aren't going anywhere. Hunger is more powerful than Ecuadorian law."

    The young family that he had been talking to wandered off into the darkness of the night towards refuge for the evening and an uncertain tomorrow.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News