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Swollen rivers, mass crowding, add to risks at Venezuela borders

Briefing notes

Swollen rivers, mass crowding, add to risks at Venezuela borders

5 April 2019
Colombia. Venezuelans risk life and limb to seek help
Venezuelan refugees and migrants trek across the border to reach Cucuta, Colombia.

Despite Venezuela having officially closed its land borders with neighbouring Colombia and Brazil as of 23 February, thousands of people are still leaving the country daily.

Many are risking their lives in the process, either wading across torrential rivers or risking exploitation and abuse by armed groups controlling treacherous irregular paths.

On Tuesday, security forces on both sides of the border struggled to control the situation as some 46,000 desperate people forced their way across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge between the Venezuelan town of San Antonio de Tachira and the Colombian city of Cucuta.

People were moving in both directions. At one point crowd-barriers were overturned. In the melee, crying babies, distressed small children, exhausted pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities were at risk of being crushed or trampled by the crowd. Fortunately, no casualties were reported.

The crowds we have seen this week are a result of the Tachira River swelling, which in turn is making crossings by foot even more dangerous than usual. Since 23 February, when the Venezuelan authorities imposed restrictions on crossing the border, pedestrian traffic at the bridge had dwindled. People instead resorted to using muddy footpaths known as “trochas” and wading across the Tachira River to get to Cucuta where they work, study, receive medical attention or go to obtain food or medicines unavailable at home. In addition, thousands of Venezuelan refugees and migrants enter Colombia every day to stay or to continue their journeys to other Latin American countries.

With heavy rain having swollen the river and flooded many of the footpaths, the only viable option for most Venezuelans was the bridge.

The situation illustrates the dangers of irregular cross-border movements by people who are desperate. Although by Wednesday the current of the Tachira River had temporarily subsided, the onset of the rainy season means crossings will continue to be highly dangerous.

UNHCR recognizes the efforts of Colombia and other Latin American countries in hosting millions of Venezuelans, and the commitment of the Colombian authorities to promote access to their territory, legal residence and other basic rights for them. In 2018, UNHCR supported the Government of Colombia’s administrative registration of over 440,000 Venezuelans.

UNHCR works closely with the Colombian authorities, intervening on behalf of individuals with specific protections needs, including women, children and adolescents, the elderly, persons with disabilities, indigenous people and LGBTI groups, and providing specialized services and humanitarian assistance to them. At all the main border crossings UNHCR provides information and legal counselling on how to access refugee status and alternative forms of stay. We also coordinate with other organizations to distribute drinking water, hygiene kits, blankets and light meals to refugees and migrants, and refers the sick to health centres and hospitals. UNHCR also gives technical assistance to relevant authorities to develop an effective coordination and prepare local response plans.

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