By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CUCUTA, Colombia – The deepening crisis in Venezuela has triggered a mass migration into Colombia. Desperate migrants are forced to do whatever they can to make money and survive.

Man looking to buy locks of hair for hair extensions in Colombia. Image Courtesy of John Otis.

Under socialist President Maduro, Venezuelans suffer from widespread food shortages, medicine shortages, and hyperinflation. As of December, the Colombian immigration department reports that more than half a million migrants have crossed into Colombia in the last two years. This exodus rivals the Syrian refugee crisis and has been labeled the world’s “least-talked-about” immigration crisis.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced earlier this month that they would take measures to tighten the border. Venezuelans responded by rushing to cross the border before the new rules took hold. The Tachira River bridge is one of the busiest crossing points and is clogged with people. Many carry boxes of possessions and suitcases with them, but still are in desperate need of money. For most, the first opportunity comes right when they arrive. Dealers of precious metals wait for migrants to unload their jewelry. People hand over their rings, brooches, and necklaces. The dealers check the purity of the metal and then offer cash.

One shop owner, Jose Alvarado, negotiates prices around $7 for a woman’s silver bracelet and $275 for a man’s gold ring. Alvarado expresses compassion and recalls a heartbreaking case of a couple who sold their wedding rings after 40 years of marriage. He says, “People cry a lot when they sell their jewelry. But they have no choice.”

Venezuelans have found that selling their hair is another way to make money. Several wigmakers now walk around Cucuta with advertisements that they give cash for hair. The going rate in the border town for women’s hair is about $10, less than one third of the price in the nation’s capital. One woman, Ms. Hernandez, said “I sold my hair to feed my girl.”

Some other ways to survive include selling street food, performing street music, and working construction. However, others resort to prostitution or street crime. The massive number of migrants has made it impossible for all those who want to work to find a job. Most of their daily earnings are immediately spent on food, water, and paying to use bathrooms in cafes.

The situation has put a huge strain on locals. In an effort to reduce the tension, President Santos remarked, “I would like to ask all Colombians to steer clear of xenophobia and hostilities toward Venezuelans.” Despite this, migrants report being robbed at knifepoint and practically run down by cars. One young man from Caracas explained how unwelcome he felt and commented, “We are rats to them.”

President Santos has adopted several measures to counter the crisis. There will be programs to help legal immigrants gain access to residency and there will be task forces to control the homeless population.

For more information, please see:

Herald Tribune – Santos Urges Colombians to Reject Xenophobia toward Venezuelan Migrants – 21 February 2018

Colombia Reports – Curfews in central Colombia after looting and violence – 21 February 2018

NPR – Venezuela’s Deepening Crisis Triggers Mass Migration Into Colombia – 20 February 2018

NY Times – In Colombia Border Town, Desperate Venezuelans Sell Hair to Survive – 17 February 2018

Author: Emily Green