MEDELLIN, Colombia — Lis Torrealba, a teenage mother from Venezuela, is perched on the edge of a milling street in downtown Medellin, Colombia, the same way she came to the country: alone, with her one-year-old daughter swaddled in the crook of her arm.
Once a student, Torrealba fled across the Venezuelan border three months ago with no prospects of a visa, a job or a future in Colombia.
“The money in our country, I couldn’t even buy candy if I wanted to,” she said. “I can’t buy anything, if there’s something you need. You would need a stack of money to even pay for a tomato. You would need a big stack of money.”
Now, Torrealba is among more than 1 million Venezuelans who crossed into Colombia fleeing widespread food and medicine shortages, rampant hyperinflation and violence by the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
United Nations refugee officials said last week that the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants who have fled their South American homeland has topped 3 million people. More than 1 million are in Colombia and almost 500,000 are in Peru, while the rest are in Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Venezuela is home to about 32 million people.
UN officials said the flood of Venezuelans have “strained” these countries and that UN refugee agencies are planning to launch a humanitarian response to the crisis next month.
As one of the Western Hemisphere’s worst humanitarian crises in decades worsens, the Trump administration has also taken notice, imposing sanctions earlier this month and even considering a potential military intervention.
“What is going on in Venezuela really is unacceptable,” said President Donald Trump after a meeting this fall with Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez. “And I know from the standpoint of Colombia and other nations fairly close by, it’s very unacceptable.”
Colombia shares a 1,400-mile border with Venezuela and has absorbed the brunt of the South American immigration crisis.
In June, the Colombian government said more than 1 million Venezuelans had entered the country within the last 14 months. The same number has permanently settled in Colombia.
Experts say funding from the U.S. and UN will only “make a dent” in the growing needs of aid organizations and in aiding the overwhelming number of refugees and migrants along the Colombian border towns and cities. The Trump administration announced in late September it would give $48 million to ease the crisis, while UN officials said it would create an international emergency fund to help Colombia and other neighboring countries.
“They’re facing a huge need, obviously,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA. “You’ve got a million people just in Colombia. That’s beyond what any aid agency can ever handle.”
‘In Venezuela, they can’t find anything’
Colombian border towns, like Cucuta, are overrun with Venezuelan refugees, with long lines of people snaking around the border post.
Migrants stream across the border, often with all of their belongings in a single suitcase, if that. Without shelter and without jobs, throngs of migrants sleep on the streets, and beg for money and food.
The Venezuelan migrants tend to flock to cities instead of remaining near overcrowded border towns, according to Isacson. “They go where the work is,” he said.
But in cities it’s also nearly impossible for migrants like Torrealba to find jobs.
Torrealba fled illegally over the border, leaving her father and mother back home. The family was starving, eating only raw yucca root to survive.
“Of course, I left to help my family,” she said. “In Venezuela, they can’t find anything, no food. They can’t find anything, nothing is good.”
Now, Torrealba can be found every day in the heart of Medellin, Colombia – the country’s second-largest city — standing on the edge of a busy street and fanning out a set of Venezuelan bolivars, hoping to sell her now-worthless currency.
“I don’t have a permit to work,” she said. “What happens is, there is curiosity by people here in Medellin, so they collect them (the Bolivars) so I just ask them for what they can give. They have no real monetary value.”
Others beg, sell gum and candy, dance or juggle knives in the middle of busy intersections. At sunset each night, young Venezuelan women gather in Bolivar Plaza or by churches looking to sell their bodies for sex.
For Torrealba, the bills generate between 35 and 40 mil pesos a day – around $12 – just enough to survive and send money back to her family in Venezuela.
Though here, she said, at least she can survive with the money she makes. She hopes to save enough to pay for bus tickets to bring her parents to Colombia in December.
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