U.N. Tent Camp Near Venezuelan Border Plans To Expand To Meet Growing Need The United Nations refugee agency set up a facility in Maicao near the Venezuelan border, providing help for more than 300 migrants. The facility aims to expand to meet the growing need.
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Venezuelans Find Temporary Lifeline At Colombia's First Border Tent Camp

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Venezuelans Find Temporary Lifeline At Colombia's First Border Tent Camp

Venezuelans Find Temporary Lifeline At Colombia's First Border Tent Camp

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now let's turn to the crisis in Venezuela. Amid hyperinflation and critical shortages of food and medicine, the U.N. estimates that 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, and more than 1 million Venezuelans have resettled in neighboring Colombia. That's prompted authorities to set up the country's first major refugee camp. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The camp is run by the U.N. refugee agency and is located just outside the northern Colombian border town of Maicao. There are rows of tents, a Red Cross clinic and a cafeteria.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Since the refugee crisis began in earnest four years ago, Colombia has tried to avoid building refugee camps. Instead, Venezuelans are encouraged to settle with friends or relatives already here or to move on to other countries. But Maicao is located on a windswept desert in one of the poorest regions of Colombia and far away from major cities. The town lacks shelters, health clinics and job opportunities. Throngs of Venezuelan refugees have ended up camping out on Maicao's sidewalks. They include Gumery Anez, her husband and four children.

GUMERY ANEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "Living in the streets, you see a lot of ugly things - like people fighting with knives," Anez says. "Several times, we were robbed while sleeping."

ANEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: I spoke with Anez as in her mattress-strewn tent at the U.N. camp that now houses more than 300 Venezuelans.

ANEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "When we got here, we slept for three straight days," she says. Marco Rotunno, a U.N. official at the camp, used to work with refugees fleeing war-torn nations like Syria and Iraq. He says Venezuelans are escaping from a different kind of hell.

MARCO ROTUNNO: It's not a war, but for many, it was impossible to do anything because there is no money. Hospitals are not delivering or helping. So many, many women who are pregnant, very afraid to lose their babies or to die. So there is no war, but a lot of nightmares for the people.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: At the camp's daycare center, many of the children are underweight and talk about the foods they crave like fried rice, chocolate cake and pizza. Otherwise, there's not much to do. Some kids kill time by flying homemade kites made out of plastic bags.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Rather than a refugee camp, the U.N. calls this site an integrated assistance center because Venezuelans are allowed to stay for just a month. Rotunno says the idea is to help them regroup but to avoid creating a permanent tent city that could become a magnet for more refugees.

ROTUNNO: They came in voluntarily, and they will leave voluntarily. So if someone wants to say, we're not going to push them out. But everyone knows the date.

OTIS: Everyone knows their leave date?

ROTUNNO: Yes, exactly.

OTIS: That might get a little heartbreaking, though, when they have to leave.

ROTUNNO: It will be, for sure - for us and for them, yeah.

ERIC GODOY: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: But even a short stay at the camp can be a lifeline, says Eric Godoy, who had been living on the streets of Maicao with his wife and 1-year-old daughter.

GODOY: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Godoy I will get good early works at an outdoor market in Maicao and says he can now save his money because he doesn't pay for food at the U.N. camp. After 30 days, he thinks he'll have enough to rent a small room in Maicao.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKERS POUNDING STAKES)

OTIS: Meanwhile, workers at the camp pound in stakes for more tents. Hundreds of refugees are on the waiting list to move in, so officials are planning to double the size of the camp. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Maicao, Colombia.

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