Oswaldo Martinez is a 31-year-old Venezuelan man who emigrated to Colombia when the economic crisis in his country left him struggling to support his wife and two children. With a heavy heart, he left his job selling onions and travelled to Peru, leaving his family in Venezuela. He had no luck finding a job in Peru, so he made his way to Ecuador. After six months searching for work, and with COVID-19 spreading through Latin America, he decided to return home.
It was a long journey back to Venezuela. Oswaldo walked for weeks, relying on the good will of people he met along the way for food, shelter, and companionship. When he arrived at the town of Cúcuta, in Colombia, he made several attempts to cross the Simón Bolívar Bridge to Venezuela. As soon as he succeeded in crossing, however, he was tested for COVID-19 and then put into quarantine.
Sitting in the quarantine center, Oswaldo says, “I came back to Venezuela for my children—six months without a family and without work is too much to handle.”
Most of the thousands of migrants returning to Venezuela arrive in the border state of Táchira, where the government has set up some 28 quarantine centers in former schools or sports halls. After undergoing a rapid test for COVID-19, returnees are grouped together based on whether their results are negative or positive. Once the quarantine period is over or they have recovered from the virus, people can finally continue their journey home.
Teams from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are working with municipal and state authorities to provide vital care to Venezuelan returnees in the quarantine centers. MSF’s focus is on improving access to clean water and sanitation services—which is important for helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases.
“One of the most frequent conditions our medical teams observed in the quarantine centers was diarrhea, so we mobilized to improve hygiene conditions and made sure that safe drinking water was available,” says Verónica Pérez, a member of the MSF medical team in Táchira.
MSF has provided support at 16 quarantine centers across Táchira state by installing systems that provide safe drinking water and by donating infection control materials, water disinfection tablets, and meters to measure chlorine. MSF teams have also constructed showers and washing points, installed and fixed bathrooms, provided kitchen utensils for food preparation, trained staff in food handling and hygiene measures, and run health promotion days to boost good hygiene standards and prevent common diseases.
To pass the time, Oswaldo accompanies his friend Jefferson Hernández as he cuts people’s hair in the quarantine center. A trained barber, 23-year-old Jefferson spent two months walking from Lima, the capital of Peru, back to Venezuela with his wife and one-year-old son. His two older children managed to cross the border two days earlier and are now quarantined in different centers. Jefferson is eager to leave the center and be reunited with his family before returning home.
This year, many thousands of Venezuelans have crossed the border back to their home country. As of July, more than 90,000 Venezuelans had returned through Colombia, according to a report by Migración Colombia, the Colombian government agency in charge of migration affairs.
Most returnees have walked from other parts of Latin America, and each one of them has a story to tell. Cristian, age 22, used to work as a food delivery man in Bogotá, lost his job as a result of the pandemic, and was making the journey home by bike. Daniela*, age 14, set out on a two-month walk to follow her mother, who had left a few days earlier because of a death in the family. Deyanina, age 26, had lost her job as a manicurist in a salon in Cúcuta due to the pandemic, prompting her to return home.
Cristian, Daniela, and Deyanina all crossed into Venezuela on the same day and, after being tested for COVID-19, were taken to the Futbol Sala, a quarantine center in a former sports complex in San Cristobal. After one week together, they said they feel almost like a family. Soon they will set out together to complete the journey home.
In Venezuela, MSF has adapted its operations in response to the COVID-19 emergency, with a focus on vulnerable groups of people who are being treated for other diseases. We are running medical humanitarian programs in the states of Anzoátegui, Amazonas, Bolívar, Sucre, Táchira, Miranda, and the Capital district.
In Táchira state, MSF teams are providing assistance to Venezuelan returnees who have recently crossed the border from Colombia and have been quarantined as a preventive measure against COVID-19. To date, 9,350 Venezuelan returnees have benefited from our assistance.
MSF is an impartial, neutral and independent medical humanitarian organization that works in more than 70 countries around the world and has been working in Venezuela since 2015.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy