Large Venezuelan Migration Sparks Xenophobic Backlash In Colombia About 2 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia in recent years amid their country's deep economic crisis. Some of the migrants are shocked by their neighbors' anti-Venezuelan attitudes.

Large Venezuelan Migration Sparks Xenophobic Backlash In Colombia

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About 2 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia to escape food shortages, joblessness and authoritarian rule. But this flood of migrants is creating a backlash. As John Otis reports, Colombians are now blaming Venezuelans for everything from rising crime to the spread of COVID-19.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At this aid station in the Colombian town of Pamplona, volunteers hand out ham and cheese sandwiches to Venezuelan migrants. After walking three days from the Venezuelan border, the travelers are hungry, exhausted and dejected.

ALEXANDER GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One of the migrants, Alexander Gonzalez, tells me Colombia has become hostile territory for Venezuelans, but many feel they have no other options but to come here.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Colombians," Gonzalez says, "practically spit in our faces."

Initially, Colombians offered a warmer welcome to the migrants, perhaps because many knew how it felt to be uprooted. In the 1980s and '90s, oil-rich Venezuela provided safe haven and jobs to thousands of Colombians fleeing a drug-fueled guerrilla war. But attitudes are changing.

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PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Colombian President Ivan Duque told a Bogota radio station that undocumented Venezuelans would not be vaccinated for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, local officials all across the country are complaining that they've been left largely on their own to deal with a flood of impoverished Venezuelans.

HUMBERTO PISCIOTTI: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Pamplona is overflowing with migrants, and we have no way to deal with it," says the town's mayor, Humberto Pisciotti. "Now we have chaos."

As many as 300 migrants per day arrive in Pamplona, an Andean mountain town that lies along the main highway to Bogota and other major cities. Many beg for food or seek medical care. Nearly all continue their journey after a day or two. But town officials say a small number have joined street gangs that sell drugs and rob stores. Pamplona residents like Nelson Maldonado now regard all Venezuelans with suspicion.

NELSON MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It would be fine if they were people who contributed to the economy," says Maldonado, "but they only come here to commit crimes."

MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Maldonado helped organize a demonstration against the town's plan to open a shelter for the migrants. The protesters feared the shelter would attract even more Venezuelans. The plan was eventually scrapped. Thus, migrants continue to sleep outside on sidewalks and in town parks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As the backlash grows, Colombian police are deporting more and more undocumented migrants. At this roadblock near Pamplona, officers have detained about 50 Venezuelans, including Jose Paez.

JOSE PAEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Paez tells me that he left Venezuela because his weekly salary as a baker wasn't even enough to buy a bag of rice. Then Paez turns to the police officers and asks them to let him go.

PAEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We came to Colombia seeking a better future," he tells them. "Look at how you're treating us. I've been walking for two days, and now you're going to send me back."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ignoring his pleas, the officers put Paez and the other migrants aboard trucks bound for the Venezuelan border.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Pamplona, Colombia.

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