Hunger, despair drive indigenous groups to leave Venezuela
With medicine and food scarce at home, indigenous Warao and Wayúu peoples are abandoning their lands to seek refuge in Brazil and Colombia.
A Venezuelan indigenous woman and child staying at a shelter in Pacaraima, Brazil.
© UNHCR/Reynesson Damasceno
When indigenous community leader Eligio Tejerina’s youngest child fell sick with pneumonia, her condition was aggravated by severe shortages roiling their native Venezuela.
“Since they were out of medicine, she could not receive proper treatment,” says the 33-year-old Warao community leader. “My seven month old daughter died.”
His surviving five children were already weakened and distressed by hunger. No longer able to find food in the local market, their only option was to leave.
“We decided to come to Brazil because our children were starving. They used to cry from hunger. They were having only one meal a day, at night. Just a little portion.”
"We decided to come to Brazil because our children were starving. They used to cry from hunger."
Widespread food and medicine shortages, skyrocketing inflation, political unrest and violence are causing hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to abandon their homeland and seek refuge abroad.
As the situation worsens at home, a growing number of indigenous people like Tejerina and his family are among those trekking across the nation’s borders in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in neighbouring Brazil and Colombia.
The Warao, Venezuela’s second largest indigenous group, were already in poor shape at home, where an HIV epidemic has ravaged traditional communities in the Orinoco Delta. Scores of Warao children have also died of measles.
Hundreds of tribal members have trekked south over the border to Brazil in recent months. More than 750 Venezuelan indigenous people now live in hammocks and tents at the Pintolandia shelter in Boa Vista, among them 36-year-old artisan Baudilio Centeno from Tamacuro.
“We found ourselves in a situation of total deprivation in Venezuela,” says Centeno. Too often finding no food in the market, he brought his family of eight to Brazil, where he scrapes by making baskets and selling aluminum cans to recycle at R$3 (US$0.81) per kilo.
The community’s plight is shared by Venezuela’s most numerous indigenous group, the 270,000 strong Wayúu, whose traditional lands straddle the border with Colombia. As conditions worsen in Venezuela, many arrive dehydrated, malnourished and with just the clothes they are wearing, with reports of near starvation conditions. Others describe medical clinics without power in Venezuela, and school bus services impacted by shortages, causing their children to miss out on their education.
“We struggled to find transport so that my daughter could go to school,” says Kary Gomez, 55, who is among Wayúu who crossed to Colombia’s La Guajira department.
"They have difficulties to access basic services due to lack of documentation.”
In addition to the Warao and Wayúu, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is aware of at least two other groups, the Barí and Yukpa, who have also sought urgent assistance abroad, where they face additional challenges because some speak no other language than their own.
“Compelled to leave Venezuela, the Wayúu, Warao, Barí and Yukpa, amongst others, have difficulties to access basic services due to lack of documentation,” said Johanna Reina, UNHCR’s senior protection assistant in Colombia.
“They face challenges in loss of identity, including language, and a dramatic deterioration of their organizational structures,” she added.
Most abandoning Venezuela for Brazil and Colombia need urgent assistance with documentation, shelter, food and health care, and UNHCR is working with the respective governments and partner organizations to meet these needs.
Earlier this week a federal judge in Brazil's Roraima border state suspended the admission of Venezuelans to the country and briefly closed the border, although the ruling was overturned by the country's Supreme Court on Monday night.
A UNHCR team remained on the border and continued to monitor the situation during the brief closure yesterday. They reported that some 210 Venezuelans were not able to finalize immigration procedures but were not deported. No pushbacks took place.
Through its field office in Riohacha, the capital of Colombia’s La Guajira department, UNHCR is also working closely with local authorities and partners to provide education for Wayúu children. At Maimajasay school, around 200 Wayúu children find a safe learning environment that nurtures and encourages indigenous traditions, with many classes taught in their mother tongue, Wayúunaiki.
Similar efforts have been made in Brazil, where Warao children receive basic classes in their language at the shelter in Boa Vista.
“We still don’t know what will happen in Venezuela. What matters is that we're doing well here.”
“We usually get together to tell stories and traditional tales,” says Tejerino.
There are at least 26 indigenous groups in Venezuela. As the situation there continues to unravel, more assistance is needed to help those uprooted from their lands, who see no prospect of return any time soon.
“We still don’t know what will happen in Venezuela. What matters is that we're doing well here,” says Centeno, who is unclear if and when his family will be able to return home. “Our children can eat and we feel safe.”
With additional reporting by Regina De La Portilla and Jessica Watts