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Millions of Venezuelans are passing through Colombia in search of better lives – but many find closed borders and persecution. This is The Globe’s first stop in a year-long examination of the global migration crisis

1. The escape

Necocli, Colombia

Six years ago, 18-year-old Kerli Vasquez watched her country erupt in a political and economic disaster that fractured and scattered her family, her education and her future. Ever since, like millions of other Venezuelans, she has been on the road.

The economic collapse and rise of political violence in Venezuela have sent more than seven million of its citizens – a quarter of its population – fleeing to neighbouring Colombia and onward across the Americas in what the United Nations calls “the second-largest external-displacement crisis in the world,” after Ukraine. It’s a mass exodus that has had profound effects on the economic and political realities of half a dozen countries, but until recently has barely been noticed in North America.

Kerli, now 24, and her four-year-old son Greike, born near the beginning of her journey in Colombia, have spent years living on the road, following the pathways used by millions of Venezuelans. Theirs has been an astonishingly dangerous journey that has so far propelled them on foot across six South American countries, never able to settle anywhere longer than four months, pushed onward by the forces of shifting immigration policy, organized crime and economic opportunity. Now, after every other possible country has proven inhospitable, she, her boyfriend and her child are preparing to walk across jungle and desert for weeks to reach North America.

Beneath her air of irrepressible optimism – within her extended family, she is considered the leader and chief instigator – are years of painful experiences and dashed hopes. She has been shot at, robbed multiple times, forced to work for no pay, abused by fellow migrants, and chased out of town by predatory gangs seeking to traffic her or use her as a drug mule. Her journey, like the journeys of tens of millions of migrants around the world, is not an arbitrary flight into the unknown; rather, it is one of ever-changing calculations and choices based on the migrant’s understanding of political and economic decisions made in foreign capitals.

“I was always just looking for a safe place to be – somewhere I can make a living and have some normal things for my boy,” she said in an interview outside her current home – a makeshift cluster of tents pitched beneath a collection of tarpaulins and blankets on a crowded beachside road on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, near the Panama border, while Greike, never far from her side, danced behind her to the salsa music played by the beach vendors. “I know that it’s not natural to live like this, on the road, but it’s all he has known. It’s the dream of all Venezuelans to have a safe place to live.”

Kerli Vasquez holds son Greike in their tent in Necocli, two months after they arrived in hopes of a crossing to Panama via the Darien Gap.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

Venezuelan migration routes

through Colombia

PANAMA

VENEZUELA

Acandi

Necocli

Cucuta

Bucaramanga

Medellin

Bogota

Cali

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

ECUADOR

PERU

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Venezuelan migration routes through Colombia

PANAMA

VENEZUELA

Acandi

Necocli

Cucuta

Bucaramanga

Medellin

Bogota

Cali

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

ECUADOR

PERU

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Venezuelan migration routes through Colombia

PANAMA

VENEZUELA

Acandi

Necocli

Cucuta

Bucaramanga

Medellin

Bogota

Cali

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

ECUADOR

PERU

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Never before have there been so many people like Kerli Vasquez in the world – people who’ve had to leave their home country, but have not yet found a way to reach a permanent destination.

The world now holds 103 million crisis migrants or, in United Nations terms, “forcibly displaced people.” That is the largest number in human history (though there were periods in the 20th century when a larger share of the population was refugees). Almost three-quarters of them originate from five countries – Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan – that have either been invaded, fallen into civil war, been ecologically devastated or, like Venezuela, become failed states.

The forces and motives that guide their movements are badly misunderstood in wealthier countries, both by citizens and policy makers. Crisis migrants tend to make headlines only when waves of them attempt to cross the southern borders of the United States or the European Union – often only as a last resort, because legal immigration pathways have been closed.

To gain a deeper understanding of the political and economic undercurrents driving the global migration crisis, The Globe and Mail has devoted this year to a deep journalistic exploration of its busiest and most fraught pathways – the routes on several continents, most of them largely unknown to Westerners, that have become flight paths for millions of people. By looking at the painful calculations and high-stakes decisions being made by these migrants, we hope to identify solutions that can turn their displacement into advantage, that can turn dangerous, uncontrollable, unlawful border crossings into safe, limited, legal acts of family migration.

And no pathway better captures the frustrating dilemmas of crisis migration than the routes through Colombia and into the wider Americas. These paths through Colombia have been followed, as of December, by 7.13 million Venezuelans since 2015; the International Monetary Fund estimates that 8.4 million will have fled by 2025.

Migrants wait on a Necocli beach for a boat that will take them to the entrance of the Darien Gap.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

By the time we met her near the Panama border, Kerli, her son and her boyfriend, 21-year-old Xavier Vasquez, had finished a two-month walk across Ecuador and Colombia to get here, reuniting her a few weeks earlier with her parents and siblings in a tearful meeting after five years apart. Now mother and daughter are working their phones, persuading their remaining family members still in Venezuela to cross the border into Colombia, head to the very top of South America, and join them here for a last desperate walk.

The oldest of seven children from Maracay, a city of a million to the west of Caracas, Kerli was always the adventurous one in her family. They weren’t rich, but made a decent lower-middle-class living running a shop selling parts for appliances – until the crisis came. After 2016, there was no school, no customers or parts, and they’d often go a day without eating. Her grandfather-in-law died, the family says, because he was unable to obtain his heart medication. So first Kerli, then her brother Alexander, then her mother and the rest of her siblings, crossed the legally closed but ever-porous border to eastern Colombia, the first of many destinations.

Most of the world’s international migrants have no need to follow such paths. Of the millions of people who migrate internationally each year (estimates range from eight million to 10 million), the majority – more than 80 per cent – are regular, “legal” immigrants who embark on conventional, airport-based movements with work permits or immigration or student visas – usually to a country wealthier than the one they came from.

But the past decade has seen a big rise in irregular migrants and refugees – people who are compelled to leave their countries because of war, domestic violence, political or economic collapse, or sometimes ecological crises.

Venezuela has produced a large share of such crisis migrants. Though it was once the wealthiest country in South America, Venezuela slid into economic mismanagement and decline after 2002 and then became the very definition of a failed state after it descended into violent political chaos and economic collapse when President Nicolas Maduro seized authoritarian power and began ruling by decree in 2017. His oil-exporting country, already incapable of extracting most of its petroleum, was now cut off from the world economy and had all the hallmarks of a failed state: an all-but-worthless currency, hyperinflation, no goods on the shelves, no functioning schools or medical services, a public sector that functions on bribes, often no affordable food or transportation.

To the surprise of many observers, despite friendlier relations between the Maduro dictatorship and other countries this year now that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made their petroleum desirable and Colombia has elected a sympathetic left-wing government, the economic and humanitarian situation within Venezuela has grown even worse. “The situation is not improving,” says Maria Clara Robayo of the Bogota-based Colombia-Venezuela Migration Observatory. “Venezuela is now one of the most broken countries in the world, and measures of deprivation rose 30 per cent last year – most Venezuelans do not believe it will improve enough to return.” More Venezuelans than ever are fleeing: According to Ms. Robayo’s analysis, 2022 saw one of the highest numbers of Venezuelans crossing into Colombia.

Venezuelan migrant Jose Hernandez, 25, tries to grab a ride on a moving truck en route from the border to Medellin.Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

Many Canadians and Americans only became aware of the Venezuelan exodus when, starting with the opening of borders at the end of the pandemic lockdown period in 2021, a comparatively small share of those Venezuelans began trying to make the difficult passage across Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico before attempting to cross the southern border of the U.S. as refugees.

The tens of thousands who have made it to that border have been a source of controversy: Much like Mexicans in the 1990s and Salvadorans in the 2000s, the Venezuelans have been portrayed as invaders by some U.S. Republicans, who have successfully pressured President Joe Biden to secure the border and ban refugee entry – a decision alternately suspended and maintained by the courts. Venezuelans number heavily among the migrants who, in a stunt ordered by the Governor of Texas, have been bused north to the homes of Vice-President Kamala Harris and other officials.

But the U.S.-Mexico border panic is merely a side effect of a far larger migration crisis. The problem of “illegals” entering the U.S. could be greatly reduced in scope, if not all but ended, if more policy attention were turned to the needs of those migrants within their own neighbourhood of Latin American countries, and their ability to apply for asylum, without official papers, from embassies in third-party countries along the migration route.

This is true of most global migration crises: Migrants who enter Europe and the U.S. through their southern borders are a comparatively minor part of the story – and their numbers are only as high as they are because policy makers fail to understand the nature of crisis migration.

Countries hosting over 100,000 forcibly

displaced Venezuelan migrants

As of mid-2022

Spain

128,000

United States

307,000

Dominican Republic

116,000

Venezuela

Panama

144,000

Brazil

439,000

Ecuador

502,000

Peru

1.49m

Colombia is host

to over 2.5 million Venezuelan migrants – more than any other country

Chile

505,000

Argentina

171,000

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNHCR

Countries hosting over 100,000 forcibly

displaced Venezuelan migrants

As of mid-2022

United States

307,000

Spain

128,000

Dominican Republic

116,000

Panama

144,000

Venezuela

Ecuador

502,000

Brazil

439,000

Peru

1.49m

Chile

505,000

Colombia is host

to over 2.5 million Venezuelan migrants – more than any other country

Argentina

171,000

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNHCR

Countries hosting over 100,000 forcibly displaced Venezuelan migrants

As of mid-2022

United States

307,000

Spain

128,000

Dominican Republic

116,000

Venezuela

Panama

144,000

Ecuador

502,000

Brazil

439,000

Colombia is host to over 2.5 million Venezuelan migrants – more than any other country

Peru

1.49m

Chile

505,000

Argentina

171,000

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNHCR

Of the 7.1 million Venezuelans who have fled so far, more than a third – about 2.5 million – are settled in Colombia as legal residents, under regularization programs launched by the Colombian government. Hundreds of thousands more, possibly bringing the total to half of all Venezuelan migrants, are living in Colombia informally, or passing through the country. On top of that, many Venezuelans have become “pendular” migrants, crossing the border each morning to bring their kids to school in Colombia (which freely enrolls Venezuelan children) or sell things on the streets. The precise number of these border-crossers is unknown. There are currently 920,000 Venezuelans registered in the Colombian health care system, most of them with full subsidies, and at least 480,000 Venezuelan kids are now enrolled in Colombian schools.

According to the UN, another 18 per cent of the Venezuelans, or almost 1.5 million, are settled in Peru. Around half a million each are living in Ecuador and Chile, and Brazil houses 388,000. By comparison, the numbers entering the U.S. are smaller: An estimated 49,000 were intercepted at the border in 2021 (the first year that saw more than a few thousand), and almost 188,000 in 2022. Those numbers may be even lower than they appear, since “interception” includes people who are refused entry and sent back south, so it can count the same people several times.

This pattern is consistent with most of the world’s migration crises. About 80 per cent of African migrants, from countries such as Nigeria and Somalia, have other African countries as their final destination, with no intention to leave the continent. The same is true of Syrians and Afghans, most of whom settle in adjoining countries. All told, almost three-quarters of the world’s refugees stay in the poor countries of South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

By a very wide margin, Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan and Uganda are currently the biggest recipients of international refugees and migrants, each hosting numbers of newcomers each year an order of magnitude higher than in North America and Europe (a recent exception would be Germany and Poland in 2022, which have each received more than a million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion). Indeed, it is these less wealthy countries that face the most serious strain on their public institutions in absorbing these migrants. And when those countries begin turning refugees away, or making life difficult for the more prosperous ones, migrants begin to see Western countries as their only remaining option.

72 per cent of refugees and other people in need of international protection originate from just five countries, and 36 per cent are hosted in another five.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees, with 3.7 million people.

The largest number originate from Syria.

Originating countries

Hosting countries

Syria

Turkey

6.8

3.7

Venezuela

Colombia

5.6

2.5

Ukraine

Germany

5.4

2.2

Afghanistan

Pakistan

2.8

1.5

South Sudan

Uganda

2.4

1.5

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNHCR

72 per cent of refugees and other people in need of international protection originate from just five countries, and 36 per cent are hosted in another five.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees, with 3.7 million people.

The largest number originate from Syria.

Originating countries

Hosting countries

Syria

Turkey

6.8

3.7

Venezuela

Colombia

5.6

2.5

Ukraine

Germany

5.4

2.2

Afghanistan

Pakistan

2.8

1.5

South Sudan

Uganda

2.4

1.5

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNHCR

72 per cent of refugees and other people in need of international protection originate from just five countries, and 36% are hosted in another five.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees, with 3.7 million people

Germany

Ukraine

5.4

2.2

Afghanistan

2.8

Pakistan

Venezuela

1.5

5.6

South Sudan

Colombia

2.4

2.5

6.8 million originate from Syria.

Uganda

1.5

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNHCR

Six years ago, Kerli did not plan to settle anywhere other than Colombia. It was welcoming to Venezuelans, had a booming economy that offered plenty of work – and it was home to her boyfriend, who soon became the father of her son. They lived and worked in the eastern border city of Cucuta for two years, then moved to an apartment in Bogota, the capital.

As with many Venezuelan women, it was abuse and violence that forced her to move on. Bogota had become rife with the Tren de Aragua gang, a criminal organization founded in her Venezuelan hometown, and thought to be supported by the Maduro regime, that expanded dramatically during the migration crisis and is known for exploiting Venezuelan refugees on the road, forcing them to become sex workers and drug mules. At the same time, her then-boyfriend became abusive, to her and their son Greike. One day, when he tried to kidnap the child, she grabbed the baby, then only months old, found a friend willing to travel with her, and started walking.

It took two months to get to the border of Ecuador, carrying the baby all the way. It was closed to migrants. So the three of them waited in the woods until after midnight, stumbled down the steep banks of the Chiquito river, and crawled across a tree that had fallen across the river, in pitch darkness, carrying backpack and baby. The forests along the Ecuadoran bank were private property, and, as they ran up the steep foothills, the owner fired his rifle at them and sent Rottweiler dogs after them. They slept, night after night, in the woods.

They spent two months in Ecuador, selling empanadas on the street. But Quito was crowded and dangerous. Her friend, now eight months pregnant, stayed. Kerli moved on to Peru. After a couple of months on the streets of smaller cities, she settled in Lima, where her brother lived. She breaks into tears when she describes her time in Lima: “This was the best moment of my life – I really loved Peru, it was like a magical place for me. I had everything in Peru. I was learning about everything – I worked in a car wash, at a restaurant, in a mall – I had a lot of opportunities. I was able to buy some stuff – a bed, a TV. My kid started to live a normal life, in a house, and he could go to school eventually.” There she met her boyfriend Xavier, a friend of her brother’s.

She settled there for four months, and planned to stay for good. But Lima contained a hidden threat: It was a hub for the powerful Tren de Aragua. She and Xavier had a run-in with the gang – some of whom she knew from Venezuela. He called the police after a violent incident, and then received a direct threat from members of the gang. They both realized they had to leave immediately. They sold everything, packed their clothes and hit the road.

“That was when we started to watch videos about traveling to the States,” she says, “but we saw that people were being raped and killed trying. So I decided we had to go to Chile.”

First they tried Bolivia, where she found good work at a small company’s factory building mechanical doors, and became adept at a range of mechanical and metalworking skills. But the company’s owner had a family breakup, dumped his employees and didn’t pay them. She packed up everything again, faced another dangerous border crossing, and moved to Iquique, in Chile’s Atacama desert. They stayed four months, selling things on the streets. After a couple of months each in some more towns in central and southern Chile – washing cars in a hotel parking lot, doing cleaning and construction work – they found the intolerance directed at Venezuelans unbearable, the employment and housing opportunities for migrants too temporary and scarce, and headed to Santiago, holding up signs saying “We need jobs.”

Kerli, right, stands with mother Iris Gouzalez at the camp in Necocli.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

There, Kerli learned that her brother had successfully made it, by foot, to the United States, where he was headed to New York. And she finally made contact with her mother. Iris Gouzalez hadn’t heard from her eldest daughter in five years – in fact, she’d filed a missing-persons report with the police. She had been living with her husband and her younger children in Cucuta, Colombia, unhappy with the poor living conditions. Iris’s husband, Giovauny, had worked as a driver and warehouse worker until he lost two of his fingers in a workplace accident; they hadn’t paid him for the work, and he couldn’t work for months. Iris did cleaning work. They were overjoyed to hear from their daughter, who began telling them about the planned journey across Panama and Central America to Mexico and the U.S. border. To both of them, after their long ordeals, it sounded like the better chance.

Kerli, Xavier and little Greike began the long trek to the very top of South America: three months walking and hitchhiking north across Chile, sleeping in their small tent, stopping to work along the way, getting robbed of their money and phones once. A month and a half crossing Peru. Another month crossing Ecuador, where a charity provided her some much-needed dental work, and gave her braces for free. And after another, less perilous midnight border crossing, a month-long hike across the mountainous length of Colombia – drivers were no longer willing to give rides to Venezuelans, they found, so they hiked the whole way. “We got no help, we were very hungry,” she says. “We had to look for little spaces on the road to put our tent.” The reunion with her family, in their cluster of tents along the beach, was joyous.

Now, each morning, Kerli crawls out of the tent before dawn, painstakingly washes her hair and clothes under a nearby public tap, tries to find something for her son to eat, and then spends her days sitting on an old crate and selling snacks, bottles of water and packs of cigarettes to fellow migrants – mostly Venezuelans, but also a lot of Haitians, Cubans and Chinese – who’ve come here to take early-morning jetboats across the bay to the Panama border. While working, she eyes her phone, constantly monitors daily changes to U.S. border policies, waiting for the right time to begin her extended family’s final, last-ditch walk north across another seven countries and onward, she hopes, to Canada.


The family of Kerli and Iris Gouzalez. While the journey to the United States via Panama is dangerous and expensive, the family considers it worthwhile after hardships they have endured in other countries. Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail
Kerli sews up one of the tents to be used in a journey to Necocli by Samary Hernandez, wife of her brother Alexander, and their children. Alexander has already made it to the United States. Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail
At the camp in Necocli, businesses have sprung up to supply migrants with boots, clothes and other gear for the dangerous Darien Gap crossing. Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail
Migrant children chat on the beach in Necocli as they wait for a boat to take them to the next stage in their journey. Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

2. On the road

Cucuta, Colombia

By the time Samary Hernandez had made it a dozen metres into Colombia after walking across the Venezuelan border with her two tiny daughters, she had already been a victim of kidnapping. It was 6:15 in the morning when she met us on the Colombian side, and she feared the worst was still to come.

Samary, 25, is married to Kerli Vasquez’s brother Alexander, the lone member of their extended family who has successfully made the lengthy trip through the jungles of Panama and across six more international borders to the United States. (The Globe is not using his full name because his family fears for his safety.) Kerli had spent months trying to persuade Samary to join the rest of the family on the same journey and reunite her with her husband.

“I was on the fence for about three months,” Samary recalled once the trauma of the border crossing was over, as we pressed through the dense crowd of vendors in the border city of Cucuta with her daughters Dalary, 3, and Sadary, 5, whom she’d dressed in matching pink jerseys. “I knew it would be hard and I didn’t have much money. And I’m worried about the kids, it’s going to be very hard for them, going through the jungle. I’m really afraid for the girls.”

But life had become harder and harder in her home city of Bolivar, southeast of Caracas. Her father, a civil servant in the health department, had died suddenly just as the crisis was becoming acute in 2017, and her mother, an assistant teacher, no longer had work because the schools weren’t operating. Food had become incredibly expensive. She tried to give the girls one meal a day. She knew she had to leave, so, after months of entreaties from her in-laws in Colombia, she sold all her possessions except a single change of clothing, and got a bus ticket.

The morning I met her, she had woken long before dawn on the floor of the bus station of St. Cristobal, a Venezuelan border town, dressed the girls and told them to be calm and polite at the border. It had cost an eye-watering $65 each to take a bus here from Bolivar – a month’s earnings for many Venezuelans, and, according to refugee agencies at the border, more than six times what it cost a few years ago. She had less than $200 left.

At the border, after Venezuelan guards had examined her expired ID card and allowed her to cross the long bridge to Colombia (the border was legally opened during 2022), a friendly woman had approached her, asking if she wanted help carrying her sleepy three-year-old. Once in Colombia, the woman had demanded a fee of $200, which Samary explained was more than she had. The woman answered, “Then I’m going to take the girl back with me,” and began walking back across the bridge with little Dalary. Desperate, Samary handed over all her money. (The woman told us that she worked with the Venezuelan border guards, who took three-quarters of her kidnapping earnings.)

What lay ahead of her, and presented her and her daughters with even more expense and danger, was the road.

Most Venezuelan migrants travel the rockslide-prone road from the border jungles of Cucuta into the mountain city of Bucaramanga, from which they can either travel north to Medellin and the Panama border, or south to Bogota and the borders of Ecuador and Peru. The trip takes six hours by bus or car, and three long days of walking in cold and dangerous conditions for a typical family.

Migrants in Pamplona, a few dozen kilometres west of Cucuta. Cold weather on these mountain roads makes the trek difficult for people who often also suffer from malnourishment.Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

Every few kilometres along this road, clusters of Venezuelans can be found, carrying their possessions in garbage bags, pushing strollers, jumping on and off the backs of trucks. There are two major groups: women with children, usually travelling without male partners. And clusters of men, generally young. Mostly they are going to a city to earn some money and bring their families over later, as Samary’s husband is attempting, in the timeless pattern of international migration. But some are here to prey on women, sometimes as members of gangs.

This reflects a shift in the types of Venezuelans fleeing the country – and an exception to the usual pattern of global migration. As a rule, most international migrants, whether refugees or labour migrants, are members of their country’s middle class. Migration costs money – €2,000 or €3,000 per person to cross the Mediterranean by rubber raft, several thousand dollars to make it to the Mexico-U.S. border without being kidnapped or sent back – and generally only people with means or savings bother trying. Emigration is usually an option open to the comparatively successful and well-connected, at least by the standards of their homes.

During the past year, however, the Venezuelan crisis has become so acute and violent that even the very poor are now attempting the road, according to Cesar Garcia, whose charity Venezuela in Cucuta operates a rest station for migrants near the border. Most of the migrants we met there said the free meal they were receiving was the first thing they’d eaten in at least a day, sometimes two or three.

“Five years ago, most of the Venezuelans who came across this border were professionals, people with higher education – people who had options. They could afford to take the bus the whole way, or send the mother or father ahead first to earn some money. But now it costs six times as much to take the bus, and it’s people who don’t have savings, so they come by walking for a week, and it’s the whole family now. You can see people being affected emotionally, physically, because they have to walk across the country with their children.”

Claudelio Gonzalez rests with son Joniel, 4, outside an aid centre in Villa del Rosario.Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

Many cross the border, hungry and exhausted and lacking any information about where to go, and realize they don’t have the means to make it any farther. About 45 per cent of border crossers, by Mr. Garcia’s estimate, stay in Cucuta, trying to earn enough money to go farther.

“I’m not able to eat every day, but at least my kids get fed at their kindergarten,” said Claudelio Gonzalez, 20, who came here from Venezuela’s Margarita Island, with her husband and three children, a year ago; she finds occasional work cleaning people’s houses. She’d dropped by the centre with her son Joniel, 4, for a free meal. “I’ve given up any plans to travel further – this is okay, it’s at least better than Venezuela,” she said.

Incidents of rape and forced trafficking on the road have increased dramatically in recent years, Mr. Garcia said – and indeed, almost every woman we met on the road had a story of attempted, or actual, abuse.

Because of the danger and expense of travelling across borders, another group we frequently met in Colombia are returnees – Venezuelans who’ve attempted the Panama border, or tried living in the Andean countries to the south, and come back.

“I’ve been travelling all my life, I don’t mind walking, so I thought it would be a good idea to walk to the United States, my grandfather lives there and has a good life. But I had no idea how hard and expensive it would be,” said Renzo Delnazareth, 20, who saved $200 and then spent 20 days walking to Necocoli, begging on the streets. Once there, his grandfather, in a flurry of urgent text messages, persuaded him to give it up, and promised to buy him a plane ticket to New York, if Renzo could get proper identifying documents. He made the long walk back and returned to the slum shack, atop a muddy hill in the town of Los Patios, which he shares with his mother and six siblings. “They’re counting on me to make it,” he told us, “but now I know it’s going to take longer.”

Renzo Delnazareth lives in a shack outside Los Patios, where a puppy plays by his muddied feet. He walked across Colombia in hopes of a crossing to Panama, but his family talked him out of it. Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

When things go badly for Venezuelan migrants, it’s Colombia they generally choose as their place of return. Not only does Colombia freely grant legal residency and work permits to Venezuelans, it is one of the few countries to open its schools and medical system to Venezuelans.

One of the more extraordinary sights we saw along the Cucuta-Bucaramanga road was the 12 members of the Guilarte Rodriguez family – or, rather, all the women of the Guilarte Rodriguez family, and their children and baby grandchildren – huddled together in a tight cluster on a median strip in a lonely mountain district, after having ridden on trucks from the border of Ecuador. They had been waiting three hours for another ride, and the sun was about to set. They were preparing to sleep, using each other’s body heat to endure the subzero mountain air.

The women, who had been registered nurses during better times in Caracas, had been living in Peru since 2019; two of them had married Peruvian men and two of their babies had been born there. “We’ve been doing okay – we have work, not in nursing but in health anyway, and apartments, and we got the kids into schools,” said Raquel Rodriguez, 34. The kids are treated badly by their Peruvian classmates, sometimes bullied and beaten for being “strange” Venezuelans. But their life was stable. Then, last spring, one of their 18-year-old daughters became pregnant – and, more than seven months into the pregnancy, developed a complication that could lead to a miscarriage.

Peru’s health system does not offer free access to foreigners, while Colombia’s superior hospitals accept Venezuelans. Returning to Colombia was her only real option. The family had relatives in Cucuta who’d put them up for a couple of months, but no money for buses – and they knew that the only way to avoid being attacked or captured by gangs on the road was to travel together. “It’s okay,” Raquel said, as her companions laughed, “we all love each other, and it’s easier to pass the time by being together.”

The Guilarte Rodriguez family rest on a highway between the Venezuelan border and Pamplona. They were returning on foot from Ecuador in hopes of better medical care after one of the women had a risk of miscarriage.Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

From the beginning of the Venezuelan crisis, it has been apparent that the best way to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and the spread of political instability and violence across South America is by giving neighbouring countries, especially Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, the resources they need to provide settlement and services to Venezuelan migrants without appearing to overwhelm or compete with their citizens’ own social services and public institutions. This also benefits the wealthier countries to the north, by reducing the number of Venezuelans who feel compelled to trek to the U.S. and Canada.

In fact, this strategy was employed, and it has been a modest, but limited, success. Under the Quito Process, launched in 2018, 13 Latin American countries agreed to receive and support Venezuelans. And under a set of processes that Canada and other wealthy countries have agreed to, funding is provided to those countries to reduce the burden and support institutions.

In the most recent donors conference, in 2021, Canada was the third largest donor, but its US$95-million pledge paled in comparison with the U.S. (US$407-million) or the European Union (US$179-million) and wasn’t much larger than Germany’s US$87-million. The next conference will be in March, in Brussels, but there are fears that support from both governments and NGOs is dwindling.

The danger of this collapsing international support becomes apparent when you get halfway along the Cucuta-Bucamaranga road as it climbs high into the eastern Andes, in the historic mountain town of Pamplona. After the road makes a series of sharp switchback turns along a very steep grade, it curves between two cliffs past a modest house carved partly into a cliffside. In mornings and evenings, you see a stream of bedraggled-looking Venezuelans straggling in and out of its front door.

This is the house of Marta Duque, one of the few places Venezuelans can get out of the cold, and get a meal, during the three-day walk. In 2015, Ms. Duque, 59, began noticing families sleeping in her carport on most nights, and departing at dawn. Many, experiencing subzero cold for the first time in their lives and wearing light summer clothes, suffered hypothermia and other injuries from the cold – such weather is unknown in Venezuela. She had a natural sympathy for Venezuelans, since she, like hundreds of thousands of other Colombians, had been a refugee in Caracas during Colombia’s own crisis period in the 1970s.

Her house gradually turned into a genuine shelter. It now has a commercial kitchen, dozens of cots, and medical staff to tend to the refugees (on at least one occasion, they have come bearing a family member who has died during the walk).

And it has inspired the wrath of her neighbours and the town’s authorities.

“Everybody was against me – the mayor’s office, the police. My neighbours were furious at me and tried to have me arrested. But I decided to continue, because some of these people would have died. The xenophobia has really increased in this town – they say the migrants work for half the salary of men in town, and that they bring an increase in the crime rate and more drugs. I agree, it’s not untrue, but it isn’t because I have a shelter here.”

Her shelter has been lauded as a lifesaving example of effective humanitarian service; virtually every Venezuelan who’d travelled this road spoke of it. But its days appear numbered: The French charity that was providing its food and medical services ended its funding on Dec. 31, and the UN agencies and governments that have supported such initiatives in the past do not appear interested in stepping in. “It’s as if they follow trends, and helping Venezuelan refugees is no longer the current trend, so they’ve all moved on to the next thing,” she says with a sigh.

Back in the border town of Cucuta, as she ate breakfast and prepared to embark on the long journey across Colombia, Samary drew inspiration from her sister-in-law Kerli, who had coached her on the ways of the voyage: how to jump onto the backs of trucks at toll booths, while carrying a small child and a backpack. How to find warm places to stay, and get free food. How to avoid being attacked. “Kerli is great, she showed me how to do everything, and she’s going to help me from here,” Samary says. “She knows the road.”


A migrant child gets a free meal at an aid centre in Villa de Rosario, Colombia. Back in Venezuela, hyperinflated food prices have made life unaffordable for many. Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail
Comparatively few of the Venezuelans in Colombia have made it to the United States, but their appeals for refugee status have prompted divisive political debates there. Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail
Emmanuel, being weighed at a nutrition centre in Medellin, has a mother planning a return to Venezuela. Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail
Other Venezuelans have made their homes in poorer neighbourhoods of Medellin, such as this one. Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

3. The northern option

Necocli, Colombia

In the end, Samary Hernandez and her girls made their way up through Medellin to the far north of Colombia in a far quicker and less dangerous manner, after a sympathetic friend ponied up the $40 it cost to send the three of them on the 22-hour journey by bus. This was a double relief, because she had faced pressure from her in-laws to get to the Panama border quickly, to co-ordinate with decisions being made 4,000 kilometres to the north.

“We need to join them in Necocli in the next couple weeks,” she explained, “because we want to be there and ready to make the trip before Title 42 is removed.”

Every northbound Venezuelan knows about Title 42.

Title 42 typifies the Western policies that are intended to stop migration waves, but instead often have the effect of making them more intense and dangerous. It is a U.S. policy, put in place by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic, ostensibly intended to prevent disease from being carried into the United States by irregular migrants. It allows authorities, on health grounds, to turn back anyone arriving at the border – in effect, it closes the southern border of the U.S. (and, technically, the northern border) to refugee claimants.

President Joe Biden, facing anti-immigrant pressure from southern governors, kept the policy in place until April of 2022, when his administration recognized that it was obsolete and probably unlawful, and announced it would be ended. That caused tens of thousands of Venezuelans to flock to Necocli, whose beaches became packed with tents as migrants saved to take boats across the bay and pay coyotes to take them on the five-day trek through the famously dense, wet and forbidding stretch of jungle known as the Darien Gap.

In October, the Biden administration suddenly announced that Title 42 would once again be used to block land entry to the U.S. This decision caused an estimated 20,000 Venezuelans to leave Necocli and head south; most settled in Medellin, where they awaited a policy change.

It came quickly: On Nov. 15, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that expulsions under Title 42 were a violation of the law and refugees must be allowed across by late December. This caused many Venezuelans, including Samary, to rush to the border. Then, on Dec. 27, Title 42 was reinstated by the Supreme Court, pending review.

Finally, in early January, Mr. Biden announced a new policy: Title 42 would be expanded in an attempt to ban land journeys. But there would also be a “parole” program that would allow entry – generally by air – of 30,000 migrants a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, if they apply in advance using a smartphone app. Mr. Biden also plans to implement a refugee-sponsorship system, similar to Canada’s, to support the scheme.

These sorts of policies, which reduce or end the use of a dangerous informal migration pathway by creating a limited-scale legal pathway, have been successful in countries such as Spain. The Biden plan faces a challenge: Venezuelans, except for a few well-off ones capable of paying huge bribes to government officials, have no way to get the ID documents they need to take a flight or apply under the new system.

Jackny Garcia and her sons get ready to leave their hotel room in Necocli, where they have been staying during the wait for a Darien crossing.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

Some Venezuelans, having exhausted all other options, are making the dangerous lunge northward anyway.

One of those is Jackny Garcia, a 31-year-old mother of two boys, aged 10 and 13. She arrived in Necocli in late November, checked the three of them into a cheap rooming house near the beach for $7 a night, and started planning for a five-day trek across what is known as the most impenetrable and uncharted stretch of jungle in the Western Hemisphere, a dense, mountainous tropical forest with the world’s highest rainfall. Her boys had watched videos on their phones showing mud-covered migrants slogging past human corpses – migrants who’d died of exhaustion – dumped in the mud beside them. “That’s where we’re going, isn’t it?” they’d exclaimed with the characteristic excitement of young boys.

The daughter of a lawyer, she and her siblings had moved to Bogota after their middle-class life had collapsed in Venezuela. She had spent three years trying to make a go of it in Bogota. The most she could make was $10 a week, and she shared a single room with her sons in the apartment of her two brothers. It became unbearable, and as she talked to her sister who’d lived a good life in Mexico City for six years (on a proper visa), she became convinced that the trek to the U.S. was the only solution.

She had saved $500, of which about $200 was left by the time she got to the beachside. She spent most of this on speedboat tickets, a simple children’s tent, bottles of water purchased from Kerli Vasquez’s stand, green garbage bags to protect their clothes, and cheap rubber boots. As she waited to board the speedboat at 7 a.m. as the boys played on the beach, an aid worker from a UN organization took her aside and warned her that she was dangerously ill-equipped for the jungle trip, and that a lone woman with children, without enough money to pay coyotes to protect her, had a high probability of being raped in the jungle. As a minimal form of protection, she was given a box of morning-after pills.

“I know this is going to be very, very hard,” she said as she guided the boys down the dock to the packed boat. “I’m frightened, and the older boy is frightened – I’m really afraid of the rivers. But I’ve put my fate in God’s hands.” (A week later, she told us she’d made it through the jungle without physical harm, though she’d been robbed of all her remaining money.)

Ms. Garcia and her sons walk to the pier, top, then set off on a boat for the Darien Gap entrance.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

Making it through the Panama jungle, however, is by no means the only peril faced by Venezuelans, although many appear not to have given serious thought to the next 5,000 kilometres and six international borders.

We met 27-year-old Inti Quevara at his tiny slum house in the outskirts of Medellin, a leafy area popular with Venezuelans. He’d arrived there five years ago with his wife, and found steady but low-paying work on a painting crew. “That was going okay,” he remembers, “but then I took that decision to go north, and it was the worst decision I have ever made. I lost everything.”

Leaving his wife and their two-year-old son behind, he headed north. He arrived in Necocli with $800, which seemed like enough. After paying $100 to get to Panama, then paying coyotes $250 to secure him through the Darien Gap, he entered the jungle. It was terrifying: After 10 hours of walking each day, the sun would set and the shrieks of the nocturnal jungle animals were deafening. The walkers would spend the night awake, huddled around a light in the tent.

When those five days were over, things didn’t get easier. Upon reaching the border of Costa Rica, he learned that Venezuelans without up-to-date papers aren’t allowed through. He had to hike around the border station, a gang-guarded pathway whose passage costs $80 per person. And the only way to cross Costa Rica, without getting caught and sent back by the police who patrol the roads for migrants, is to take a $50 bus ride.

He encountered the same situation, and similar prices, at the borders of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. By then, he was broke, and his wife had to borrow money to send him. By the time he reached Ciudad Juarez, he knew the trip was a failure. Paying coyotes to bring him across the U.S. border would cost thousands, and the Americans then were sending back refugees at the border.

One family he was travelling with made it into Texas, where they were soon picked up by police and sent back to Mexico. Another family was captured by a gang in Mexico. The children and parents were held in separate buildings, and the gang demanded a $30,000 ransom. Inti tried to go back on his own, but he was caught by the Mexican army, who forced him to fly back to Venezuela at his own expense. For this, he borrowed money from his extended family. The entire fruitless trip cost him US$4,800. “I’ve made things so much worse for us – it will take me years to pay that back,” he said. “I’ve basically reset my life to the beginning, and I have to start everything over again.”

Inti Quevara and his wife, Karely, sit at their house on the edge of Medellin.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

International migration is an expensive, difficult gamble, often based on limited information; even poor refugees are engaging in complicated and often agonizing calculations. The decisions made by Jackny and Inti, respectively, were poorly informed, probably unwise and, in Inti’s case, ruinous. Neither of them likely would have chosen to head to North America by land if other safe and economically secure options had been made available and communicated effectively – either better options in South America, or a limited legal pathway to the U.S. or Canada by air. Rather than sending them back at the border and creating even greater desperation, our countries could benefit more, and create stability in their region, by investing in better options for them.

Back in Necocli, the arrival of Samary and her daughters brought the extended family beneath the beachside tarpaulins up to 14 people – and gave their circle a festive, joyous atmosphere, buoyed by Kerli’s optimism, that seemed at odds with their very tough living conditions. They hadn’t saved nearly enough money, and the U.S. border might not be open again for months, but nevertheless they had decided to go. Kerli and her mother Iris were acutely aware of the hazards faced by people like Inti Quevara – they’ve talked to other Venezuelans whose trips have failed.

But they had concluded, after Kerli’s six-country ordeal, that there were no longer any other options. And they had two sources of hope: One was the sheer size and experience of their group, a source of protection. The other was Alexander, who had made it to New York, and urged them all to follow: He was their example, their anchor.

In reality, Alexander, who arrived in the U.S. last summer as part of a large number of Venezuelans headed to New York, has been living in a refugee shelter in Brooklyn, with 20 men sleeping in each room on cots. It provides shelter, but no food – for that, he relies on occasional jobs cleaning floors or working on construction sites; he often goes weeks without work.

Samary Hernandez knows all this, but sees it as all the more reason to come to her husband’s aid. “He is not very clever,” she concedes. “He needs me there to help make progress beyond a shelter – until he is with me, he is going to be stuck.”

It’s a gamble, she agrees, but she has faith in beating the odds. “If we get into the States, everything will be better. We’ll have things we’ve never had. I don’t think things are going to get better in Venezuela. The dream of our people is now to live in North America.”

On Christmas Eve, Kerli, Samary, Iris, Giovauny and their children began their trip across the Darien Gap. So far, after weeks of walking, they have made it to Nicaragua.

For Kerli Vasquez and her extended family, the search for sanctuary continues.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the next International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants would be held in Canada in May, but it will take place in Brussels in March.


Undercurrents: More from this series

Doug Saunders tells The Decibel about Venezuelan migrant Kerli Vasquez, and how her family’s journey illustrates the challenges of migration today. Subscribe for more episodes.