Venezuelan migrants throng Ecuador-Colombia border high up in Andes

RUMICHACA BRIDGE (Reuters) - Thousands of Venezuelans overwhelmed the Ecuadorean-Colombian border high in the Andean mountains on Thursday, as fears of border closings led to a sudden surge in migrants from the ravaged OPEC-member country.

Impoverished Venezuelans are fleeing food shortages, hyperinflation, and violent crime in their homeland, often taking days-long bus rides across South America because they cannot afford flights.

Ecuador’s government on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in three provinces due to a jump in Venezuelans who arrived through Colombia. Authorities said up to 4,500 Venezuelans had crossed daily since the weekend, up from around 500 to 1,000 people previously.

Almost a dozen Venezuelans at the Rumichaca bridge, which divides the Ecuadorean-Colombian border, told Reuters they pushed forward their emigration out of fear that the porous Colombian-Venezuelan border, which most migrants cross at the start of their odyssey across South America, could be closed.

“There were rumors that the border with Venezuela was going to be shut and I left early to avoid getting stuck,” said Irene Bravo, 55, sitting on the ground surrounded by big bags as she waited to get her passport stamped by Colombian authorities.

“The situation is unsustainable in Venezuela. Everything is expensive and you cannot afford to eat,” added Bravo, who planned to continue on to Chile with her two sons and extended family.

Around her, tired children slept on suitcases and adults huddled under flimsy blankets to try to ward off the cold mountain temperatures.

Slideshow ( 7 images )

Some Venezuelans said they had heard Colombia’s new president, right-wing Ivan Duque, could toughen border crossings, while others said they feared leftist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro would.

Duque is more hardline than his predecessor, centrist Juan Manuel Santos, but he has not mentioned anything about closing the border and stressed during his inauguration on Tuesday that Colombia had a duty to help its “Venezuelan brothers.”

It was not clear what precipitated the rumor. It was not immediately possible to reach the Colombian government and Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

In the middle of the commotion at the border, musician Jose Ramon Sanchez played the harp, instantly cheering up his fellow Venezuelans who clapped at the sound of the traditional music from the grasslands and shouted “Out with Maduro!”

“Playing the harp helps me calm the pain of having left my family,” said Sanchez, 37, who left Venezuela’s state of Barinas on July 23 and has been performing songs along the way to pay his way to Peru.

Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Alistair Bell