Coronavirus stokes fear among Venezuelan migrants in Latin America

BOGOTA/LIMA (Reuters) - For millions of Venezuelan migrants who fled the crisis in their homeland, many struggling daily in countries across Latin America to afford food and rent, the spread of coronavirus threatens to bring new hardship.

More than 4 million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015, as economic and political upheaval caused shortages of food and basic goods as well as the collapse of the health and education systems.

From Buenos Aires to Bogota, many of these emigrees scrape a living hawking goods on the streets of Latin American cities, working as cab drivers or waiting on tables in restaurants.

Most lack access to healthcare and state welfare, and have no savings to fall back on if they cannot work. With countries across the region imposing quarantines, curfews and border closures to stem the spread of coronavirus, many migrants now fear they will be trapped and more vulnerable than before.

“We left one country for the welfare of the children but we aren’t going to stay without knowing if we have access to health care,” said Maricarmel Luho, 25, who fled Venezuela with her husband and four children to neighboring Colombia, where they survive by begging and selling items such as candies.

With Colombia, which has confirmed more than 100 cases of the disease and imposed a quarantine on the capital Bogota, Luho says she is already hard-pressed to afford basic necessities.

“What scares us is that we get sick with coronavirus and no one will provide us with medical treatment.”

In Colombia and other countries like Mexico only emergency medical care is available to Venezuelan migrants who have irregular immigration status.

The informally employed generally get by without health insurance, sending meager earnings to relatives in Venezuela who live off remittances.

Even those with more stable work fear the coronavirus, which has led to the deaths of more than 8,700 people worldwide.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to our jobs,” said Jhoel Colmenares, a 24-year-old bartender working in Bogota who comes from the northern Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto. “I work in a restaurant and don’t know if they might close because of a quarantine.”

Colombia’s health system is poorly equipped to handle migrants sick with coronavirus, the International Rescue Committee said this week.

Moreover, lack of secure access to food, shelter and running water could make migrants a vector for spreading the disease, it said.

Many Venezuelans fear that they may experience worse levels of xenophobia once the virus spreads, said Juan Carlos Viloria, a doctor originally from Caracas who now lives in Colombia, home to some 1.7 million Venezuelans.

“We still don’t have an infected Venezuelan migrant but once we do, (xenophobia) will be much greater,” Viloria said. “Nobody will want to give shelter to them.”


In Peru, where there are more than 230 confirmed cases, the government has suspended constitutional rights such as freedom of movement and assembly and declared nightly curfews.

Venezuelans who depend on street-selling are out of work.

“They cannot go outside,” said Rene Cobenas, who runs a shelter for migrants in Lima. “They don’t have money for day-to-day needs.”

President Martin Vizcarra has promised a payment of 380 soles ($106) to Peru’s poorest 3 million families, but the measure does not extend to Venezuelans.

The tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who have crossed into Brazil are luckier - they have full access to the public health system.

In the border state of Roraima, 40% of the hospital beds are occupied by Venezuelans. At the Boa Vista maternity hospital, a daily average of 10 babies are born to Venezuelan mothers.

Roraima this week closed its border to Venezuelans in an effort to relieve the overwhelmed health system in anticipation of the virus reaching the state.

“Today our public services, not just health but also education and public security, are totally overburdened,” said Ricardo Amaral, a spokesman for Roraima’s governor.

Officially, about 650,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border into Roraima, but actual figures may exceed 1 million given that many do not register to stay in Brazil and simply continue on to other South American nations.

On Thursday, hygiene kits and soap were handed out to migrants at the Boa Vista bus station, a meeting point for Venezuelans seeking work and a place to sleep if they are not among the 7,000 already in shelters.

In Venezuela, which has fewer than 50 confirmed cases, President Nicolas Maduro has asked people to stay home in a social quarantine that could worsen the country’s humanitarian crisis.

As they wait for news of further measures, Venezuelans abroad were doing their best to keep working.

“I’ll be honest, we are very afraid,” said Yaniris Cantillo, 26, who sells juice to vehicles stopped at traffic lights in Bogota. “If they order mandatory isolation or we have to do a quarantine, we don’t know what we will do.”

“If we don’t go out, we don’t eat.”

Reporting by Oliver Griffin and Javier Andres Rojas in Bogota and Marco Aquino in Lima; Additional reporting by Carlos Vargas and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Daniel Flynn and Gerry Doyle