Venezuela fac­ing mass ex­o­dus of its peo­ple

A largely un­no­ticed refugee cri­sis wors­en­ing

Metro Canada (Vancouver) - - World -

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.

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