Venezuela is experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. More than 3.4 million people have fled political instability, soaring crime rates, hyperinflation, extreme food and medicine shortages, and the collapse of public services. Today, nine out of ten Venezuelans live below the poverty line and 300,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition.
Neighboring countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, have been overwhelmed by the increase in migration. Services to protect people from abuse and exploitation are lacking and the needs of recent arrivals are largely unmet.
“Millions desperately need the most basic assistance – food, health, protection, shelter and access to legal services. This is a crisis across the region that demands the attention and support of the international community,” says CARE President and CEO Michelle Nunn.
children at risk of dying from malnutrition
Half of Venezuelan refugees are estimated to be women and around 30 percent are children, two groups particularly vulnerable groups that face a high risk of abuse and trafficking. Trafficking networks operate near border crossings and there is evidence of transactional sex in exchange for food. An increasing number of children make the journey unaccompanied, hoping to be reunited with their parents in southern countries. They face extremely high risks of living and working on the streets, and of being exploited.
“More than any other humanitarian emergency I have encountered, the Venezuela crisis is truly a women’s crisis,” says Alexandra Moncada, CARE’s country director in Ecuador. “We are hearing shocking reports of sex and labor trafficking of Venezuelan women across the region. We are talking about criminal rings that span countries and hundreds of thousands of miles. in some cases, parents are even asking their young daughters to turn to prostitution to help support the family.”
These photos provide a glimpse of the journey and devastating reality for millions of Venezuelan refugees.
In Ecuador, Venezuelan migrants are forbidden from using public transit or face the threat of being returned to the nearest border crossing by police. This group, the majority of which are on their way to Peru, have been walking through Colombia for 25 days. At night, they sleep at the roadside, huddled together to keep warm.
Venezuela‘s refugees often travel in groups for safety. Journeying alone provides a better chance of hitching a lift from passing traffic but it also increases the risk of abduction. Cartels are preying on lone walkers for cheap labor and women are being abducted and sold into sex work.
Cristina* made the difficult decision to leave her partner in Venezuela and travel with her 7-year-old daughter to Quito, Ecuador. When she arrived, Cristina only weighed 88 pounds. She chose to starve so that her daughter could eat three meals a day.
Cristina, an academic in Venezuela, took on work as a nanny in Ecuador, where she was sexually harassed. Venezuelan women have reported being sexually harassed during the migration process and there is evidence of abuse, sex trafficking, and the practice of transactional sex for food.
Maria*, 31, fled with her two children to the outskirts of Ibarra, Ecuador. She cannot hold back tears as she discusses the xenophobia towards Venezuelans. Maria fears for her life and the lives of her daughters. She hasn’t left their small apartment in weeks, even to collect essential food vouchers.
Endisma, 4, survived on one meal of plantain a day for months. Her parents can no longer find the essential medication needed for her diabetes.
John, 21, has not eaten properly for the last three years while in Venezuela. He currently lives at an informal tented settlement in Bogotá, Colombia, which is home to several hundred refugees. John has had a fever for five days but does not have money to see a doctor.
Data shows that Venezuelans are arriving to surrounding countries with significantly deteriorated health. Access to health services are sporadic. Although medical care is available at the borders, most Venezuelans have limited documentation or cross informally and are unable to access these services.
Twins Yerfranli and Franderlin, 10, huddle under blankets in freezing temperatures at Rumichaca in Ecuador. Their family left Venezuela to find physical therapy for their brother who relies on a wheelchair due to a deteriorating, untreated muscular condition.
Joender, 6, Ipiales, Colombia, after a 33-day journey, mainly on foot. He holds a packet of crackers, a donation from one of the many generous Colombians offering support to Venezuelans.
Kevin, 11, walked and hitchhiked with his family for 21 days to reach Quito, Ecuador. They arrived penniless and exhausted. CARE Ecuador is providing shelter, food, and psychosocial support to the family members. Creating safe spaces helps migrants face their trauma and strengthen their resilience moving forward.
Keinya, 22, sits in the kitchen area of her tiny flat in Ibarra. The apartment is dark and windowless. Five people share a single bedroom.
“We have all lost our jobs, and we survive on $3 a day to feed all of us,” Keinya says, weeping. “We left our country because there was no food. We were starving and now we are starving again here.”
Maria, 7, is at the Foundation of Migrant Attention, a shelter in Bogotá, Colombia. Maria and her mother are on their way to Ecuador. As they say their goodbyes at the shelter, Sister Teresina hands Maria a bear. Maria replies, “Thank you, sister. This bear is the only thing I have in the world. I will look after him.”
Venezuelan refugees attend Sunday service at Quito Basilica in Ecuador. In the background, Venezuelan Bishop Mons Morouta Rodriguez Del Valle preaches his Sunday sermon to an attentive audience: “God has no borders … there are no borders in the sky.”
*Name has been changed