By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Colombia, Fri. April 24, 20020, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As Colombia’s capital enters the sixth week of a strict coronavirus lockdown, some hard-hit Venezuelan migrants are doing what once seemed unthinkable – they are walking home.
About 1.8 million Venezuelans have crossed into neighbouring Colombia in recent years, fleeing an economic and political crisis and medicine shortages in their homeland.
Many rely on daily cash earnings, working as street sellers, cooks, cleaners and construction workers, to buy food and pay rent, but the lockdown has closed businesses and brought Colombia’s informal economy to a halt.
Luis Salas, 23, and his family are among at least 3,000 Venezuelans who have decided to return since Colombia introduced lockdown measures that have since been extended to May 11.
With no money and few buses available, many, like Salas, are travelling on foot.
This is his story:
“I’ve been living in Colombia for two and a half years. I left Venezuela because of the high inflation. It became impossible to buy any food with the salary I was earning.
It took me time to find a job in Colombia. But eventually I did, as a kitchen help in a bakery.
I also learnt new skills, and how to bake bread and pastries and cook typical Colombian dishes. I adapted and worked hard.
I earned less than a Colombian did and got paid in cash. But at least I got paid at the end of every day. It was enough to pay the rent and buy food.
I didn’t have to rely on anyone or the Colombian government. We were getting by. We were surviving.
But then the quarantine started. The bakery closed. From one day to the next, I had no money and no way of earning money.
The small savings we had, we spent in the first month of the quarantine buying food. We can’t survive and work when everything is closed.
There are no more opportunities in Colombia for us. There are no jobs. It’s surviving day to day. I can’t hope and rely on a food parcel to come every two weeks during the quarantine. We are nobodies and it’s worse during the quarantine.
So we made the decision to return to Venezuela.
We’ve been walking for nine days so far. There are 14 of us in the group, including aunts and uncles, my wife and my three young children.
My wife and I take turns to push a pram with our youngest child, who is one, in it. It’s tough going.
One woman in our group got bitten by a dog, another has sprained her ankle.
Some days it’s been raining hard. We walk along the side of the motorway. I have no money in my pocket.
Along the way, one lady put us up for the night and gave us food. We had a shower and recharged our cell phones. People are generous. Other times, we’ve made a fire by the roadside and have slept outside.
I’m afraid to go back home. It’s no secret that there’s a dictatorship in Venezuela. And I know the health system is in decay.
But it’s better to die in your own country than in a foreign one.
As a Venezuelan migrant with no papers in Colombia, I had no right to healthcare. What would happen to us if we got ill, what would happen if one of us got the virus? Would a hospital give us medical care or turn us away? It’s scary.
Along our journey, we’ve met other Venezuelans walking back. They all say the same thing. They are afraid to die in Colombia and would prefer to be home.
We’re walking north towards the border city of Cucuta. It’s going to take us at least three weeks to get there by foot.
I hear there are buses being provided by mayors in some cities in Colombia and by the Venezuelan government at the border so that Venezuelans can return home and not have to walk.
We’ll go to my father’s house in Falcon state. We’ll have to start again, from zero. I know it’s going to be tough.
I’m a boat mechanic but I can do any job. First I’ll try to get a job on a construction site.
Venezuela is also under lockdown. But at least I won’t have to pay rent as we’ll be staying with my father.
If something goes wrong, I think we’ll have a better chance of getting the healthcare we need in Venezuela than in Colombia.
We have a better chance of surviving this pandemic as a family back at home.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)