Luis Fajardo walked and hitchhiked for 10 days from Caracas to Lima. Sometimes, he caught a lift on the back of a truck, but the journey was mostly on foot, under a beating sun and in the cold desert night. He was following a dream that perhaps things could be better in a different country.
That was a year ago, but he still feels the toil on his feet, as he shepherds cars into parking spots near the market in the north of the Peruvian capital. He shows a single coin in his palm, worth about 17 cents – the kind of change that motorists toss his way as they drive off.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever walked that much. If you had, you’d understand but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” said Mr. Fajardo, 44. “A human breaks easily.”
He is among the more than six million Venezuelans who have fled their homeland since 2014 in what has become the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The reasons for the exodus are well-documented: staggering rates of inflation and ravaged earnings, shortages of food and electricity, a collapsed health care system, corruption and human-rights abuses. The international community’s attempts to punish the regime of Nicolas Maduro with economic sanctions have failed to yield results and even worsened pre-existing crises, the UN has said, and the pandemic dealt another devastating blow.
Latin American and Caribbean countries have welcomed the vast majority of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, but their capacity to help is increasingly overstretched. People are still arriving, by any means necessary. More than 1.3 million have landed in Peru – the second-highest recipient of migrants after Colombia. About 800,000 have stayed, according to government figures, and some 500,000 have claimed refugee status.
“The profile of the migrant who is arriving in the country is different now,” said Luz Guarniz, co-ordinator for a Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) project in Lima. “Five years ago, the people who arrived were better prepared.” Now, they are younger, or entire families come at once. They are from rural areas or the peripheries of Caracas where there is a higher rate of poverty. There are also more groups of adolescents who arrive unsupervised, she said, looking to reunite with families or to send money to relatives left behind.
Late last year, MSF launched a humanitarian program that operates outside the Plaza Norte bus terminal in Lima and in Tumbes, one of the main points of entry from Ecuador. A team that includes doctors and social workers provides basic medical care to the newly arrived migrants, and goes out to look for them in places where they may be sheltering.
It encounters myriad situations: pregnant women, the elderly, people living with disabilities and families who are dehydrated after gruelling 3,000-kilometre journeys through dangerous terrain. “On average, we’re seeing 70 people arrive daily” in Lima, Ms. Guarniz said. “They don’t know what they’re up against, what their rights are and where to turn to for help.”
A recent study by the international NGO Save the Children found that one-quarter of school-age migrant children surveyed in Lima and in the region of La Libertad, two of the most populous parts of Peru, were not enrolled in school. One in 10 reported being unable to enroll because of discrimination from school administrators.
Access to education and health care is guaranteed in Peru, irrespective of immigration status. But lack of documentation needed to sign up for school or get medical treatment has meant that children are being denied their rights, the Defensoria del Pueblo, Peru’s Ombudsman’s office, has found.
Venezuelans are often scapegoated as the cause of rising crime and their expulsion has also become a vote-grabbing ploy. Pedro Castillo, the candidate of the Marxist Free Peru party, promised to swiftly deport “delinquent foreigners” last year during his campaign for the presidency, which he won.
He was slated to preside over a televised deportation of 41 Venezuelan migrants, which was cancelled at the last minute because Venezuela had not authorized the plane’s arrival. Peruvian officials had first said the intended deportees had criminal records, but then clarified that the infractions were related to crossing into Peru outside formal border crossings, or making false statements upon entering the country.
“We reject this xenophobia,” said Matilde Cobenas, deputy ombudsman for children and adolescents at the Defensoria del Pueblo. “Sometimes it may be appropriate to deport people, but proper procedures need to be followed and it can’t become this spectacle.”
Despite the political rhetoric, Ms. Cobenas said there are officials committed to assisting migrants. Peru has put in place systems to give them legal status, and ensure access to resources such as public services and banking. But many slip through the cracks because they didn’t come with the paperwork the government requires, such as passports or identity documents.
Bridging the gap are Venezuelans already settled in Peru like Martha Fernandez. She migrated to Lima 15 years ago and has worked for various NGOs, most recently founding an organization called Association Poblacion Vulnerable, which seeks to empower women and has received funding from the Canadian government.
“The problem for migrants is that there isn’t a network of support,” Ms. Fernandez said. “If something happens to you, nobody assumes responsibility for that.”
Osdaly Yamilet Garcia Chirino, a member of Ms. Fernandez’s group, has felt alone as she’s tried to build a new life outside of Venezuela. Her first stop was Bogota, where she worked as a housekeeper and sold empanadas from a mobile cart. Then it was on to Lima, where she hasn’t been able to work consistently because there is no one to care for her young daughter. The family is surviving off her husband’s salary in construction, and she longs for the day when she can see her older son, who stayed in Venezuela.
“There are other people who have lived through harder things – people who have lost family members along the way. Thankfully we are healthy and fine,” she said.
Luz and Dinora also feel fortunate. They came from the same city in Venezuela but met in Lima, where they have mounted a small sewing and T-shirt printing business with seed capital from Save the Children. The Globe and Mail is identifying them only by their first names to protect their safety and prevent stigmatization as recipients of humanitarian aid.
Their journey wasn’t easy.
“I arrived with a dream. And the day I arrived I found out it was all a lie,” said Luz, referring to the job she had been promised that never existed.
But they have felt supported by some locals. “My first two sewing machines were lent to me by a Peruvian,” Dinora said. She considers Peru to be home now.
For many others, the struggle drags on. Ms. Fernandez said it is taking too long for people to feel like they are progressing or that they belong. “I speak to people every day who are returning to Venezuela,” she said. “The reason they give me is: ‘I’m tired of so much humiliation.’”
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