Venezuelans Stream Into Colombia

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 29, 2019 7:04 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're about to hear from one of the way stations in a world of refugees. It's on a route that many people are taking as they flee their homes, the road out of Venezuela. That country is in chaos as an opposition leader tries to unseat the president, Nicolas Maduro. Many who flee cannot afford so much as a bus ticket after hyperinflation took their savings. So they walk, sometimes hundreds of miles, into Colombia for a new life. Ari Shapiro, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, has been on the road that many take and is about to introduce us to one mother and son. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the route this mother and son traveled before they met you?

SHAPIRO: It is about 350 miles from the border of Venezuela to the capital Bogota, where we are now. And it goes from 90-plus-degree heat at the border to temperatures below freezing up in the mountains. And that's close to where I met this mother and son, Rosangela and Israel Bastida. The son is 9 years old. The mother is 35. And I want you to just picture these roads - twisting, steep mountain highways with huge trucks barreling past and steep cliff drop-offs. There is no shoulder on these roads, so you're seeing families walking single file. And the aid workers that I met said that's what's really scary about this moment in the migration crisis - is that, initially, young men of working age were leaving Venezuela by the thousands. Now they are seeing pregnant women, elderly people and very, very young children.

INSKEEP: And you say 350 miles after they get out of Venezuela. Just getting out of Venezuela is not easy...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And some go more than 350 miles all the way to Ecuador or Peru - hundreds of miles more.

INSKEEP: Wow. So what did this mother and son tell you?

SHAPIRO: Well, I met them in this mountain town called Pamplona. It was cold and drizzly. People were shivering in T-shirts that they had worn to cross the border. And the mother, Rosangela, told me she has five children, but she chose to only travel with her 9-year-old, Israel.

Where are your other four children right now?

ROSANGELA BASTIDA: (Through interpreter) They stayed in Venezuela.

SHAPIRO: How did you decide to take one child but not the others?

R BASTIDA: (Through interpreter) Because of the situation, because it's been so hard in the country.

SHAPIRO: Are the other children older or younger?

R BASTIDA: (Through interpreter) Older.

SHAPIRO: And so you took the baby with you?

R BASTIDA: Si. (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Do you miss your brothers and sisters?

ISRAEL BASTIDA: Si.

SHAPIRO: If you could talk to them tonight, what would you tell them?

ISRAEL: (Through interpreter) That I love them, and I miss them.

SHAPIRO: Are you able to talk to them on the road?

R BASTIDA: (Through interpreter) No. I haven't talked to them until now.

SHAPIRO: I'm so sorry. I know how difficult this must be. And you're very, very brave to do this.

R BASTIDA: Gracias.

SHAPIRO: Steve, I met an aid worker who described standing in a room full of migrants to provide medical care. And she asked whose feet were hurt. And she said a 2-year-old child raised his hand. And when she went up to him, his feet were just covered in broken, bleeding blisters. There are as many tragic stories on this road as there are people.

INSKEEP: Ari, this is an excruciating choice you describe and yet so common to decide who to take, who to leave behind.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

INSKEEP: How's the Colombian government responding to the people who do come?

SHAPIRO: You know, the hospitals and schools are strained. And there is no national effort to provide for these walkers - these caminantes. But at the same time, the Colombian people I met, for the most part, are welcoming the Venezuelans. And the government is not making a focused effort to keep them out.

The real fear that I heard from Colombians is that, if the crisis in Venezuela is not resolved, then the more than 1 million migrants who have already fled Venezuela for Colombia could become 2 or 3 million. And people don't know how the country could possibly handle that.

INSKEEP: How does Colombia's approach to refugees compare with the United States?

SHAPIRO: Oh, it's completely different. I mean, yesterday, I went to the U.S. embassy in Bogota. And I talked with the ambassador, Kevin Whitaker, about this. He's been in this job for five years. He has spent his career in Latin America. So he's really an expert on the region.

Why should Americans care whether Venezuelans are flooding into Colombia?

KEVIN WHITAKER: Look. This is the largest movement of people - of refugees - outside of Syria, in the world. This is a humanitarian catastrophe right in our region. And so this will have follow-on effects which will directly affect us.

SHAPIRO: What would happen if Colombia adopted the U.S. approach to immigration at the border and said, there's a national emergency - we're going to build a wall - we're going to deport people who we find without papers? What would happen if that were Colombia's approach?

WHITAKER: It's just not consistent with Colombian culture. Colombians, in their tens and hundreds of thousands, migrated to Venezuela in the '60s and '70s and '80s when Venezuela was a wealthy country, and Colombia was not so much. And so there is a sense of welcoming here in Colombia that - I mean, I think it's fair to say it won't necessarily last forever. But right now, Colombians are welcoming these Venezuelans and helping them as much as they can.

SHAPIRO: That was, once again, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, speaking with me yesterday at the embassy in Bogota. And, Steve, tonight on All Things Considered, we are going to make that 350-mile journey, talking with Venezuelans all along the way about their challenges and their hopes for the future.

INSKEEP: We'll be listening. Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro, who has been reporting from Colombia on people pouring out of Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.