“If you give them 100,000 [Colombian] pesos you can get tested [for the novel coronavirus]. If you pay $150, you can get on a bus to any part of the country,” a 48-year-old Venezuelan who is stuck at the border told us recently, although he can’t afford to bribe the Venezuelan officials to let him through.
He’s one of the tens of thousands of Venezuelans returning home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the economic, political, and humanitarian crises in Venezuela. Many returning migrants slip through unofficial border crossings, some having to pay bribes to cross, risking spreading the virus as they return home. Those who enter through official crossings face an ineffective system at the border that may spread the disease instead of halting it.
The man we interviewed left his hometown in Anzoátegui to pursue a better life in Bogotá less than a year ago. But the pandemic crushed his plans, since lockdown measures obliterated the informal sector where he worked and he could no longer afford rent and food. He walked for 30 days to the border and crossed into Venezuela through one of the hundreds of illegal crossings.
Nicolás Maduro has claimed that when returnees arrive to Venezuela “they’re free, have dignity and are humans again.” He clearly hasn’t visited the border these days.
A government protocol considers anyone entering the country as a suspected COVID-19 case, and requires testing and then staying in quarantine at the border before continuing the journey.
In theory, the screening and testing protocol could help identify, isolate, and treat returning Venezuelans with COVID-19, but delays and problems with the testing protocol could instead magnify transmission. Local news outlets have reported that the people waiting for tests have to fend for themselves. The man we talked to, who was able to get tested and then was transferred to a quarantine shelter after more than a week, said the people waiting for testing slept on the street without distancing or masks, filled their bottles with rainwater and waited to be admitted without official support.
People waiting for testing slept on the street without distancing or masks, filled their bottles with rainwater and waited to be admitted without official support.
Some aid workers said there were delays because the tests are in short supply. In other cases, people who cross through the long, porous border between Colombia and Venezuela simply aren’t tested.
Waiting to be tested isn’t the only time returnees may be at risk; returning Venezuelans with a negative antibody rapid test are required to isolate in a shelter. This makes sense because the rapid antibody test used to screen them can be falsely negative during the early and most contagious time of infection.
But this also means that some people entering the quarantine shelters may be infected and, without adequate protections, could easily spread COVID-19 to others. Many quarantine shelters, which range from hotels to stadiums to abandoned schools, are overcrowded and people face unsanitary conditions, including difficulty accessing water. This has made social distancing and handwashing, two basic measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, nearly impossible.
On July 8th, Maduro said people crossing through illegal passageways were “contaminating their communities” and “killing their families”. Previously, he said the returnees were “irresponsible” and that their families and neighbors should report them. Other authorities have called returnees “fascists”, “camouflaged coup-plotters” and “biological weapons” sent to Venezuela. This stigmatization and intimidation of an already vulnerable population undermines the testing efforts.
The plight of Venezuelan returnees illustrates the desperate situation that the Maduro government has created. The returnees originally fled a repressive regime that contributed to a man-made humanitarian emergency at home only to face vulnerability abroad, which has worsened with the pandemic. They’re now returning to inflammatory rhetoric and even more precarious conditions in a country that had a collapsed health system even before the pandemic hit.
With the continuous flow of returnees making their way from various parts of the continent, the conditions at the border, and restrictions the Maduro government has imposed on the number of people who can enter the country through official access points, stories like the one we heard are likely to become more common.
To limit the spread of COVID-19 in Venezuela and protect the rights of people returning, Venezuela needs to provide prompt and appropriate testing and proper conditions in quarantine shelters at the border. But given the hostility the Maduro administration has shown toward returnees, the government is unlikely to take the necessary steps without strong international pressure.
In their efforts to push for a large scale and apolitical UN-led humanitarian response in Venezuela, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres and his humanitarian team at its highest levels, as well as donor governments, should pressure Venezuelan authorities to end their stigmatizing rhetoric and accept a border protocol that respects citizens’ rights; with international humanitarian aid that is distributed by an independent third party. Meanwhile, Latin American governments should ensure that Venezuelans in their countries have access to legal status and proper health care there, so they don’t feel forced to return to Venezuela’s desperate reality.