Venezuela facing mass exodus of its people
A largely unnoticed refugee crisis worsening
In a cramped hospital near Colombia’s border with Venezuela, migrants fill stretchers bearing the wounds of the deteriorating nation they left behind.
An 18-year-old woman rubbed her swollen belly after fleeing with her infant daughter when the wounds from her C-section began to ooze pus. A young man whose femur had torn through his skin in a motorcycle crash needed antibiotics for an infection. An elderly retiree with a swollen foot arrived after taking a 20-hour bus ride from Caracas because doctors there told his family the only treatment they could offer was amputation — without anesthesia or antibiotics.
Michel Briceno, the young new mother who fled to Colombia after the incision from her C-section became infected, said she knew she had to leave after learning that several other women at the same hospital in Venezuela had also gotten ill and died. When her pelvis began to swell, she and her husband gathered their toddler son and newborn daughter and boarded a small bus for a 12-hour ride into Colombia with excruciating pain she rated a nine on a scale of 10.
Seated on a hospital bed as her infant squirmed beside her, Briceno said she had no doubt about what the outcome might have been if she stayed in Venezuela. “I would have died,” she said. As Venezuela’s economic crisis worsens, rising numbers are fleeing in a burgeoning refugee crisis that is drawing alarm across Latin America. Independent groups estimate that as many as 3 million to 4 million Venezuelans have abandoned their homeland in recent years, with several hundred thousand departing in 2017 alone.
Many of those migrants are arriving by foot in Colombia and landing in the Andean nation’s emergency rooms with urgent medical conditions that Venezuelan hospitals can no longer treat.
According to health officials, Venezuelans made nearly 25,000 visits to Colombian ERS last year, up from just 1,500 in 2015. At hospitals in border cities like Cucuta, patients are packed side by side on stretchers that spill into hallways, not much unlike the deplorable conditions they fled back home. Authorities project that Venezuelan admissions to Colombian hospitals could double in 2018 and say the nation’s already overstretched public health system is unprepared to handle the sudden swell.
The Venezuelans are fleeing an increasingly authoritarian government that has been unable to halt skyrocketing inflation that renders wages nearly worthless and forces millions to go hungry. In Cucuta, ground zero for an exodus that has spread across Latin America, migrants say their nation’s rapidly deteriorating health system is also forcing them to leave as everything from simple antibiotics to critical chemotherapy drugs become hard to find or impossible to afford.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has refused to allow humanitarian aid to enter the struggling nation, denying there is a crisis and contending that permitting international relief could pave the way for foreign intervention. But what little data officials have released indicates Venezuelans are facing mounting health challenges..
At least one Venezuelan child has died in Colombia from malnutrition, seeking treatment too late, and officials say many others are arriving dangerously underweight. By law, Colombia’s hospitals are required to treat any person, local or foreign, who shows up at an emergency room. But many Venezuelans are arriving with chronic conditions like cancer and diabetes that require expensive, continuing care. Health institutions in Colombia are not required to provide those treatments.
Cucuta health officials estimate the cost of caring for Venezuelan migrants will climb millions of dollars this year. Most of that cost ends up being funded by cash-strapped local institutions that say they need the help of the central government and international community.
President Juan Manuel Santos is under pressure to declare a social emergency, freeing up additional resources, and the top U.S. Agency for International Development official for Latin America recently visited Cucuta to evaluate how the Trump administration can help its close ally respond to the growing crisis.
Venezuelan Michel Briceno sits on a bed with her daughter at the hospital in Cucuta, Colombia. Briceno left Venezuela after learning that several other women at the same hospital where she gave birth had also gotten infections and died.