Venezuelan migrants’ dangerous trek through Colombia

Wrapped in a blanket and four months pregnant, Liliana Mendoza has been walking for eight hours. 

Her journey, which began three days ago, is a treacherous one, but the single mother – like millions of other Venezuelans – is desperate to escape the country’s spiralling economic and political crises.

“I’m doing this for my other children,” she says. “I have a five-year-old daughter and two-and-a-half year old baby,” adds Mendoza. 

“Things in Venezuela get worse every day: no food, no medicine, no life.”

Mendoza’s destination is neighbouring Colombia, where her sister lives in the western city of Armenia, some 700km from the border.

Colombia has taken in more Venezuelans since the crises began than any other single country, according to figures from the United Nations. Many of the more than one million refugees and migrants received special status but the new arrivals often continue to face hardship as Colombia’s public services strain under the weight of the influx.

The country’s porous border with Venezuela is more than 2,000km long. Along the route, Liliana has met other migrants undertaking the same journey poorly equipped for the bitter cold of the Andes Mountain range, which separates the two countries.

The Berlin Paramo, a dangerous pass known as the “ice box”, lies just 100km from the Colombian border. It is a popular route for migrants, despite the freezing air, which makes it difficult to move forward.

Heidi Chavez wears thick gloves and a woolen hat to protect her from the cold, but she is without a jacket, her feet covered only by flimsy plimsoles.

“I’m here also for my son, he got meningitis in Venezuela and I didn’t even have money for the vaccine,” she says.

Deteriorating situation

The two women are just two of the more than three million Venezuelans who have fled poverty, hunger and crime in their country in recent years, in one of the biggest migrations in the world today, according to the UN.

The country is currently in the fourth year of a crippling recession, which has seen hyperinflation soar, reaching 830,000 percent on Thursday and expected to rise further, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames the crisis on what he calls an “economic war” against his country. 

The deteriorating situation is forcing more and more people to seek a better life in Colombia and elsewhere, despite the risks.

At least two Venezuelan migrants are reported to have died from the cold while trying to cross the Andes, according to Colombia’s forensic medicine office – but the actual number may be much higher.

“It’s unclear just how many might have died because nobody is really keeping track of the dead or the missing along these routes,” says Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from the pass.

The Colombian Red Cross has set up a help station at the start of the trek into the so-called ice box, offering health services and scarves to migrants along with crucial information.

“They don’t know what they have to face or where to go, most have never crossed the border,” says Xiomara Caravajal, of the Red Cross.

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