President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia announced stricter border controls on February 13 in response to an influx of Venezuelan refugees into the country. Three days later, President Michel Temer of Brazil declared a state of emergency in the northern state of Roraima, which borders Venezuela. Local governments in both countries have struggled to provide health and social services on a scale large enough to accommodate the refugees.
Increasing numbers of Venezuelan refugees have crossed the 1,378-mile Venezuelan-Colombian border in recent months. According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, about 25,000 Venezuelans cross the Colombian border every day to buy basic goods, which adds up to more than nine million visits a year. Because of Venezuela’s current economic and political crises, many visitors now decide to stay in Colombia.
Brazil’s northern state of Roraima hosts the country’s largest population of Venezuelan refugees. While Colombia is the primary resettling point, about 40,000 Venezuelans have trekked through the Amazon to settle in Roraima. These refugees make up about 10 percent of the population in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima. The abundance of Venezuelan refugees has strained Roraima’s public resources as the state struggles to keep up with the increasing number of displaced persons. In response to the crisis, President Temer plans to double the number of troops stationed in Roraima, establish a field hospital, and shift refugees further inland to alleviate the burden on Roraima.
Migration officials in Cúcuta, Colombia have stated that around 30,000 people walk across the border between Venezuela and Colombia daily on the Simón Bolívar Bridge. In November 2017, more than 96,000 Venezuelans entered Colombia legally, more than two times the number of immigrants from the country in November 2016.
Multiple Colombian aid groups have established health services for the refugees, providing vaccinations for more than 112,000 people and treatment for more than 23,000 children. While non-profit organizations have set about feeding the Venezuelan refugees entering Colombia, some locals seem hesitant in supporting the new arrivals. Freddy Muñoz, a 30-year-old Venezuelan man who sells smuggled tuna, reports he was robbed at knifepoint. He also added that drivers do not brake when he crosses the street and called him “Veneco,” a slur thrown at Venezuelans.
While the situation has proven difficult for Colombia, President Santos is urging Colombia to accept the refugees, calling out xenophobia and hostility towards the Venezuelans. “Venezuela was very generous to Colombia when Colombians sought for a better life in Venezuela. Millions of Colombians… were received with open arms…. We must also be generous towards Venezuela in these times of difficulty,” said Santos.
Similar incidents have occurred in Brazil, where attackers set fire to a shed housing around 30 Venezuelan migrants, three of whom sustained injuries. In a separate incident, security cameras caught an individual launching a Molotov cocktail onto a Venezuelan resident’s porch. The attack injured two people, who were later hospitalized for severe burns. Forty-eight human rights organizations issued a joint statement denouncing the attacks, stating that anti-immigrant violence “puts in jeopardy the security and the dignity of those people who seek protection and a welcoming environment in Brazil.”
The Colombian and Brazilian governments have made concerted efforts to counteract the cultural and logistical backlash of Venezuela’s internal crises. That said, Venezuela’s own government remains the only power capable of fully addressing the issue. Accordingly, President Santos issued a statement aimed at President Maduro of Venezuela, placing the blame for the refugee crisis on his shoulders: “I want to repeat to President Maduro: This is the result of your policies .. and it’s the result of your refusal to receive humanitarian aid, which has been offered, not just from Colombia but from the international community.”