Striving to protect vulnerable Venezuelan children
Fourteen-year-old Katrina Gómez* could have been safe at school the day two men assaulted her on a public beach of this Colombian coastal city, and raped her. But she and her parents did not know she had that right.
Instead, every day when her parents went out to sell homemade rice pudding and cakes on the street, Katrina was charged with watching over her little brother David* and the family’s few belongings on the spot in the sand where they had been sleeping for the past eight months since they arrived from their hometown near Maracaibo, Venezuela.
One day in August when her mother Paola* came back from a long day of work, she found Katrina crying uncontrollably.
“She told me what happened, but we didn’t report it for fear of being deported,” said Paola. It was the same fear that had kept her from trying to enroll the children in a local school, although legally they had a right to.
To date, around three million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela, where multifaceted challenges include severe economic hardship and shortages, combined with a complex human rights and political environment.
"The most durable solution for children ... would be integration into their host communities."
More than one million Venezuelans have settled in neighbouring Colombia, of whom more than 415,000 have so far been granted special permission to stay by the government. However, many like Katrina’s family, remain undocumented making them particularly vulnerable.
Eventually, with the help of the protection team of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Katrina’s family reported the assault, and the teen was seen by doctors and a psychologist. The family received temporary shelter in a local hotel, part of a network of hotels that have signed agreements with UNHCR to house the extremely vulnerable while more lasting solutions can be found for them.
“The most durable solution for children and their parents will be integration into their host communities, and part of that is getting them access to education,” said Jozef Merkx, UNHCR’s representative in Colombia.
The upheaval of displacement is particularly tough on children.
At a children’s day care centre called Hearts Without Borders, in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, volunteers help newly arrived Venezuelan children to process the sudden change in their lives.
“We help them understand what they are going through and to recognize that despite the circumstances they are capable of achieving so much,” said Sandra Rodriguez, the director of the centre. The religious community Hermanos Maristas developed a five-week programme for children aged five to 13.
A key part of that programme is a colourful workbook developed by UNHCR called “My Journey, A New Place” which uses drawings, stickers and writing exercises to guide the children to describe how they left their homes, things they might have experienced along the way, and their current living conditions.
Quite how challenging those conditions are is apparent from the hundreds of insect bites on the face, arms and hands of 11-year-old Anderson Arenas. “I itch all over!” he complained, as he tried to color in his workbook while scratching furiously. “His family is living in a rooming house that is apparently flea infested,” said Rodriguez, who asked a volunteer at the center to give him some cream to soothe the irritation.
“Nearly all of them are four to five kilos underweight for their age, and below average height.”
The center also provides free checkups with a doctor and a dentist, who detect cases of malnutrition often caused by a lack of access to basic foods back home. “Many of the younger ones had never had milk before, or beef,” Rodriguez said.
“When they first arrive we weigh and measure them,” she said. “Nearly all of them are four to five kilos underweight for their age, and below average height.” Thanks to the balanced breakfasts and lunches they receive at the center, many manage to gain a kilo or two during their time there.
Hearts Without Borders also aims to help the children whose families are planning to stay in Colombia to get up to speed with the local school system to which, thanks to a recent government directive, all children have a right “regardless of their nationality or migratory status”.
However, obstacles for Venezuelan children to access education in Colombia remain, said Merkx. Many school districts require the child’s parents to obtain legal status within three months of enrolling the child, or insist on official papers certifying the child’s school level, documents that are extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain.
“Ensuring access to schools is the best way to make sure children are protected and able to thrive,” Merkx said.
* Refugees' names changed for protection reasons