Monday, August 27, 2018

The Venezuelan Exodus

There's currently an unofficial curfew in place for Venezuelans in Pacaraima, a small border town in Brazil's northern state of Roraima. On August 18, following an attack on a Brazilian shop owner that was blamed on a Venezuelan, a mob attacked migrants with clubs and stones and forced about 1,200 people who had taken up residence in Pacaraima to leave. Now, no Venezuelans dare to go out at night.
"We have to hurry home before sundown because groups of Brazilians are patrolling the town and hunting Venezuelans," said Gustavo Luces, who fled from MaturĂ­n five months ago.  
Miguel Angel Garcia, another Venezuelan, lost all of his possessions and documents when his tent was set on fire during the attack. "The police act as if they don't see the motorbike riders who patrol the streets," he said. "We are treated like dirt, like animals."
"I would advise the Venezuelans not to be on the streets at nighttime; it could be dangerous for them," said Wendel Lima, a 31-year-old who took part in the attacks but denied that the mob used violence. "We are doing just what has been agreed with the military police: When we come across someone who has settled here, we ring the police." 
Fernando Abreu, a retired teacher, said the patrols served to show Venezuelans that they are not welcome. "We will prevent them from staying here," he said, calling for stricter measures at the border. "We are just defending our houses, our physical integrity. Nearly all of them here are criminals who exploit their children by making them beg." 
Jesus Bobadilla, a Spanish priest who was born in Morocco, has become an advocate for Venezuelans in Pacaraima — much to the chagrin of longer-term residents. "Talk of peace and quiet in the town is misleading and does not reflect the truth," Bobadilla said. "No one knows what will happen next. Violence is in the air." He added: "I have lost half of my believers."  Bobadilla, too, described the night patrols, when club-carrying hooded men on motorbikes prey on Venezuelans. "They organize so-called car convoys for peace," he said, "but it doesn't have anything to do to with peace efforts: just patrols." 

An economic meltdown, growing poverty, and shortages have forced more than 1.6 million Venezuelans to abandon the oil-rich nation since 2015, one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history, the United Nations says. With rampant hyperinflation - the International Monetary Fund forecasts Venezuela's inflation could reach 1 million percent by year's end - the monthly minimum wage barely covers the cost of a kilo of rice or flour. Money has become so worthless.
"With what you earn in a month, you can't even afford to buy the basic things you need to survive. Food prices can rise 40 percent overnight," said Rafael Barboza.
Without money for airfare, bus tickets or even a passport, thousands, some carrying babies in their arms, are on foot, walking to find what they hope are better lives in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. Colombia has taken in the highest number of Venezuelans, about 870,000, and growing numbers are spreading across South America. More than 4,000 Venezuelans poured into Ecuador every day during a record peak in mid-August.
Karina Mendez and her husband left Venezuela two weeks ago for Peru, where they hope to earn money for antibiotics and other medicine for their sick young daughter. More and more migrants have their hearts set on Peru, one of the fastest growing economies in the region. Peru is seen as having fewer work visa restrictions and offering the best chance of jobs as builders, cleaners, waiters and farm labourers. Some 350,000 Venezuelans have settled in Peru this year, up from 2,350 in 2015.
"I've heard Peru has a good economy. My son found construction work there within weeks," said 52-year-old Daniel Segura, a migrant and lorry driver.
On the highway heading to Peru, 21-year-old Javier Caballero dragged a wheeled suitcase stuffed with blankets and a large cross, unfazed by measures to deter migrants.
"We're not afraid of anything anymore. We'll keep going. We've seen catastrophic things in Venezuela, people dying of hunger," said Caballero. "We have no passports but returning to Venezuela isn't an option," he said. "It would be going back to misery."
Migrants are also drawn to Ecuador where they can earn in U.S. dollars. It has become home to about 40,000 Venezuelans. Many have made a new home in picturesque Ibarra, a two-hour drive from Ecuador's mountainous border with Colombia, washing car windscreens at traffic lights, peddling sweets or working as cheap labour for local businesses.
Angel Mejia, 35, who came to Ibarra in March, works as a hotel cleaner and get tips from guarding parked cars at night. The former supermarket manager earns less than half the nation's monthly legal minimum wage. "I'm just grateful to have work that allows me to send $40 a month to my wife and baby in Venezuela for their basic survival," he said.
Peru this month tightened entry rules for Venezuelans, requiring passports instead of just national identity cards. A judge in Ecuador has postponed a similar rule for six weeks.
"These type of measures will not stop people from crossing borders. They will keep doing it,"  said Christian Visnes, country director in Colombia for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

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