CARACAS (Reuters) - Yusneiker and Anthonella have been living with their grandmother since their father left Venezuela and its collapsing economy last year for Peru, to try and earn enough to feed them. Two years earlier, their mother fled for the Dominican Republic for the same reason.
Yusneiker, 12, and Anthonella, 8, are eating better thanks to hard currency remittances from their parents, according to their grandmother Aura Orozco, who is grateful for the dollars that offer a reprieve from Venezuela’s annual inflation of nearly 2 million percent.
Still, she said, they miss their parents.
When they fall sick, they clamor for their mother. Though Yusneiker has adapted, Anthonella’s grades have slipped. The dark-eyed, curly-haired girl has clammed up and often answers her grandmother by simply nodding or shaking her head.
“To this day, she will lay down and if you ask her ‘what is wrong?’ she will say ‘I miss my mommy,’” said Orozco, 48, in her home in the hillside Caracas slum of Cota 905.
Some 3 million Venezuelans have migrated in three years, putting a growing strain on the country’s children as more parents are forced into the heart-wrenching decision to leave.
There is no official data on the phenomenon from the government of President Nicolas Maduro, which disputes the idea that there is an exodus, saying international aid agencies are inflating figures to give the administration a black eye. Despite this official skepticism, Maduro has touted a program to help migrants return.
Childhood hunger, decrepit schools and shortages of medicine and vaccinations already were problems amid the collapse of an economy once renowned for abundant oil wealth. With more parents migrating, experts interviewed by Reuters said growing problems facing Venezuelan children now include slumping school performance and malnutrition of newborns separated from would-be nursing mothers.
“These are lose-lose decisions for the parents - do I lose more by not being able to cover basic needs in the country, or by sacrificing the relationship with my child?” said Abel Saraiba, a psychologist with Caracas-based child advocacy group Cecodap.
Venezuelan migration, for years a middle-class phenomenon that involved air travel, is now dominated by working-class citizens who take long bus rides or walk along dangerous paths that are unsuitable for children.
Many also know they face challenging economic circumstances and want to be free to work all-day shifts to send more money home.
Cecodap said problems associated with children left behind by emigrating parents comprised its third most common request for help in 2018, up from fifth place in 2017.
Catholic organization Faith and Happiness, which runs schools in poor neighborhoods, said at least 5 percent of students had seen their parents emigrate as of the start of 2019.
Children often gain material benefits from their parents’ migration, because sending hard currency to relatives provides greater access to food and medicine and even the occasional gift. Yusneiker’s grandmother was recently able to surprise him with a new pair of sneakers.
Parents say this is little consolation for breaking up a family.
“Even though my kids are older, it still hurts. I miss them so much,” said Omaira Martinez, who left her 17-year-old and 21-year-old children with their grandmother when she moved to Chile six months ago, where she now works washing dishes. “The first few months were hard. I cried a lot.”
Venezuela’s Information Ministry, which handles media inquiries for the government, did not respond to a request for comment.
Maduro has warned migrants that they face xenophobia and exploitation in other countries, and has launched a repatriation effort called “Return to the Homeland” that he says has helped some 12,000 unhappy migrants return home.
Often parents are unable to return quickly despite having promised to do so.
When Angymar Jimenez, 27, left for Ecuador to work as a manicurist, she planned to be back in several months. Two years later, her two children Andrew, 5, and Ailin, 10, are still in the care of their grandmother, Iris Olivo.
“(Ailin) at first would say that her mom was coming to get her, she would say goodbye to her friends because she thought she was leaving,” said Olivo. “Eventually she realized that wasn’t happening.”
In extreme cases, migration of a nursing mother can lead to illness and malnutrition.
One-year-old Leanny Santander in the western Falcon state has been suffering from diarrhea and vomiting since her mother moved to Colombia in search of work and stopped breastfeeding her, said her grandmother, Nelida Santander.
Santander said doctors told her Leanny’s health problems, which now include bronchitis, resulted from the early end of breast-feeding.
“I prefer for my granddaughter to be here with me - if her mother took her over there it would be worse,” said Santander, 50. “Here she is sick, but at least I can attend to her.”
The decision to migrate is often made quickly, which means parents are likely to leave children with relatives without giving them custody, putting children in a legal limbo.
A 2018 survey on migration issues by pollster Datanalisis found that about half the households surveyed had not legally placed children in a guardian’s care. That complicates signing up for school, where the presence of both parents is legally required.
The situation puts further pressure on kids to grow up early, sometimes to comfort their own anguished parents.
“I speak to her every day,” said Yusneiker of his mother in the Dominican Republic. “I tell her I miss her, that she should not worry, and that I know she has not abandoned me.”
Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and David Gregorio