Field Update: Displaced Venezuelans In Urgent Need of Help
Project HOPE ‘s Teresa Narvaez recently visited Colombia and Ecuador to begin preparing HOPE’s response to the Venezuelan crisis. Read her first-person account.
Desperate hungry children and families, exhausted by hours of walking, and emotionally depleted by the pain of leaving loved ones behind, huddle in long lines at the border of Venezuela and Colombia. These are the faces of what has become the Western Hemisphere’s biggest humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled into Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, seeking to escape fast-worsening economic and political conditions.
For many Venezuelans, this painful, hazardous journey is their only option. Extreme hyperinflation and severe shortages of food, medicine and health care at home have forced this impossible choice.
My organization, Project HOPE, is preparing to respond to this crisis, and I recently visited border cities in Colombia and Ecuador to assess the needs of displaced Venezuelans and their host communities. During my trip, I met families grasping for hope and crying children who had endured long journeys on foot – some with no food – in extreme weather conditions.
On the ground with Venezuelans: hunger and harsh conditions
For many, the little money they had when they left Venezuela had all been quickly spent in the struggle to survive. In one city alone – the Municipality of Villa del Rosario in Colombia – we witnessed food delivery to thousands of displaced Venezuelans.
Along the border town of Rumichaca, between Venezuela and Ecuador, where the temperature ranges between 39 and 51 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes dropping to freezing, people were hungry and cold. Most Venezuelans who had fled didn’t have adequate clothing for winter conditions, and many were looking for someone to give them a glass of water, a piece of bread, or a hot meal.
On the ground with Venezuelans: an escalating health crisis
The influx of Venezuelans is overwhelming health care systems and straining local services in host countries. This situation will likely worsen as the exodus of Venezuelans continues. By next year, three million people are expected to have fled Venezuela.
As a registered nurse, the health crisis is especially distressing to me. Support for health needs of displaced Venezuelans is an urgent gap, since the Colombian health system requires health insurance to care for the ill.
Although Colombia is willing to provide emergency care, the cost of services for this large group of displaced people generates a huge expense to public hospitals, and it’s putting additional strain on budgets that are already overburdened.
Additionally, an alarming increase in infectious diseases, such as measles, diphtheria, chickenpox and hepatitis, is putting not only Venezuelans at risk, but also host country populations.
On the ground with Venezuelans: lack of housing poses additional threats
Families who have fled Venezuela face significant problems finding shelter and many must bed down for the night in public spaces, with no security, control or protection. Young women are forced to resort to offering sexual services for a couple of dollars just to buy food for themselves and their children. As a result, there has been an increase in cases of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Environmental sanitation in these border areas is insufficient, and there aren’t enough clean toilets available. People have no options for restroom facilities and are forced to use the streets, the walls, the parks – anywhere they can find.
What’s next for Venezuelan families?
The families and their host communities desperately need health assistance: medicines and vaccines, medical supplies and equipment, the training of health workers and the coordination of medical brigades to boost the capacity of the existing health systems. And for too many, time is running out.
Teresa Narvaez, RN, is Project HOPE’s Dominican Republic Country Director and has been integral in our Colombia response needs assessment. We are now on the ground, working with partners and hospitals and deploying medical volunteers.