Colombia says over 52,000 Venezuelans return home, cites lockdown

BOGOTA (Reuters) - More than 52,000 Venezuelans have voluntarily returned to their country from Colombia during the coronavirus lockdown, Colombia’s migration agency said on Tuesday.

Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelans fleeing economic crisis and political upheaval. More than 1.82 million live in the Andean country, but a nationwide quarantine has cut many migrants off from work and motivated tens of thousands to return home.

“The vast majority of the migrant population remains in the country and there are some who have expressed their desire to return,” migration agency director Juan Francisco Espinosa said in a live broadcast on social media. “It’s a phenomena that we have understood as rational and normal because the a pandemic situation makes them prefer being at home.”

The figures on returning Venezuelans include some 27,000 people in border areas who left Colombia in the first three days after the government closed land borders, he said. An additional 25,000 Venezuelans have since returned home via humanitarian transport.

Many Venezuelan migrants lack visas and get by working informally as street vendors, in construction, restaurants or making food deliveries.

The two-month quarantine, currently set to end on May 25, has shuttered many businesses and burdened Colombia’s poorest residents with additional worries about how to put food on the table, despite expanded government welfare payments to some.

An orderly return process for migrants will continue, Espinosa said, depending on Venezuelan capacity to receive returnees.

“If Venezuelan citizens want to return, they will be able to but in an organized way,” he said. “Venezuela has a limited capacity to receive its own citizens and that’s an issue that is out of the hands of Colombian authorities.”

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said all returnees are welcome, but opposition leaders and activists have said quarantine facilities for returnees are overcrowded and lack food and water.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by David Gregorio