Fearing an outbreak of the Coronavirus, Colombia closed its border to Venezuela in the spring of 2020. That didn’t deter Venezuelans: every day, hundreds of people continued to cross on foot into Colombia illegally, evading officials along a porous border that stretches for 1,380 miles.
Once one of the richest countries in Latin America, with oil reserves rivaling those of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela today is racked by insecurity and violence. There is little food or medicine, and basic services are limited. Inflation is skyrocketing, and workers’ incomes are plummeting. The migration crisis has grown dramatically since 2014 after the election of authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, whose leadership has led to the disintegration of the nation’s economy. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), roughly 5.4 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela—dozens of them dying in shipwrecks in 2019 and 2020—and almost 2 million of them are in Colombia. The Venezuelan migration crisis is now the largest migratory flow in Latin American history, and it’s estimated that the country’s speed of displacement will outpace that of Syria, where millions have been fleeing war.
International organizations, including the Catholic Church, have offered medical attention and food in the largest border cities, but thousands of families end up in informal camps or living on the street. Away from the main centers and the eyes of the international press, aid is scarce. In early 2020, the Colombian government announced two special residence permits allowing more than 100,000 Venezuelans to stay and work in Colombia; they authorized children of Venezuelan parents to be entitled to Colombian citizenship. Nonetheless, the vast majority of migrants remain deprived of fundamental rights. I have followed the most vulnerable of these people: children and teenagers, and pregnant or nursing mothers. Their hardships, are a window into Venezuela’s collapse.
In the north of Colombia, the deserts of La Guajira Peninsula represent one of the main gateways into the country from neighboring Venezuela. A territory that’s shared by the two countries, La Guajira is home to the Wayuu, the third-largest indigenous group on the continent. Since 2016, many of the Wayuu who had migrated to Venezuela, fleeing conflict in Colombia, have started to return. Along the border, smugglers of gasoline, food and goods operate brazenly in front of army officers, and Wayuu children demand tolls along the illegal dirt roads that connect the two countries.
In Colombia, La Guajira is synonymous with extreme poverty and state neglect. Desertification and the scarcity of drinking water have rendered impossible any attempt to build an agricultural economy. For migrants and the Wayuu, crime often represents the only prospect for income. Frankilina Epiayu, a midwife and expert in herbal medicine, helps pregnant migrants give birth and care for sick children with natural remedies. Excluded from public education and access to health care and deprived of the right to citizenship, a generation of migrant children are born in informal camps. Traditional healers like Frankilina help mitigate the inefficiency of international humanitarian aid, and through her tireless dedication, the boundaries between two unsettled communities—the indigenous Wayuu and Venezuelan migrants—connect through sisterhood and solidarity.
Although the United Nations offers a few hundred migrants a tent and food for a month after their arrival in La Guajira, thousands more survive by begging in Maicao, the frontier city. Others recycle garbage from the dump they call home, to resell in urban centers.
A man with a backpack slung over his shoulder, walking from the border in Paraguachón to Maicao, sings a song by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. “I speak Italian! I am a professor of literature in Maracaibo!” he says, quoting Dante: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark forest.” He adds, “I love my job, but I can’t support my family. For this, I emigrate.”
Cúcuta, the main city along the eastern Colombian border, is the starting point for migrants called los caminantes—the walkers. They are the people who, unable to pay for a bus ticket to Bogotá or to the next border with Ecuador, are forced to make the migratory route on foot. Many are used to the warm temperatures of the Caribbean, and the chilly Andean peaks are challenging. At night, they seek shelter in a garage or the warehouses of a compassionate citizen. They often walk in slippers or rubber sandals, and the few belongings they carry are stashed in plastic bags or old suitcases that are uncomfortable to carry. Looking for a job, or out of desperation, young Venezuelans enter the Colombian coca-producing region and become raspacines (coca leaf pickers) and can sometimes earn more than $50 a day. Some are recruited by criminal gangs; many girls are forced into sex work in the red-lights districts of the cities or in the villages of coca-growing areas. “Will your photos also be seen in Venezuela?” one asks me. “Try to photograph me so that you don’t see my face. My mom thinks I got a job in a shop, she can’t see me like that.”
At the Colombian-Venezuelan frontier, living conditions are desperate. Many take the chance to pass through illegal dirt roads, paying gangs from both sides of the border for safe passage. There have been reports of rape and torture committed by gang members and Colombian and Venezuelan officials. The walkers have scant access to food, health care and adequate sanitation. Eventually, many decide to return to the capital or other cities.
The pandemic has inverted the movement of people. Finding that day-to-day survival has become nearly impossible, many are walking back the way they came. What’s more, the measures imposed by the Colombian government to prevent contagion have made it harder for charities and NGOs to provide free meals and assistance. Even a charitable citizen like Marta Duque has been denounced for the services she and others provide to migrants. “My neighbors call the police when they notice I am offering my shelter to the walkers,” she says. “But I don’t care. We have the moral obligation to continue helping the migrants.”
Nicolo Fillippo Rosso is a documentary photographer based in Colombia. He focuses on the Venezuelan mass migration crisis. Rosso has been awarded a Getty Images Grant, the International Photography Award (IPA) and the Lucie Foundation’s Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year for 2020.