Colombia evicts over 200 homeless Venezuelans from sports field squat

CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombia on Wednesday evicted over 200 homeless Venezuelans who had been sleeping in a sports field in its border town of Cucuta, highlighting growing unease over an influx of migrants from the crisis-hit neighboring country.

The Venezuelans were removed at the crack of dawn from the field in a middle-class neighborhood, where they had been sleeping in makeshift tents or on cardboard boxes. A few insulted Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro as they boarded Colombian migration agency trucks, a Reuters reporter witnessed.

Most were deported to Venezuela because they did not have valid passports, although some vowed to cross back over when they got the chance.

“We left with the dream of working and escaping Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela, but unfortunately they’re sending us back,” said Jesus Millan, 45, minutes after being expelled back into Venezuela. He had been working in a car wash in Colombia.

The roughly 50 Venezuelans who did have passports would be moved on, driven by authorities some 1,480 km (920 miles) to the Ecuadorean border, Colombian authorities said.

Colombia, already home to the most Venezuelan migrants in South America, is particularly vulnerable to Venezuela’s swelling crisis.

An earlier wave of those seeking to escape Venezuela’s collapsing economy, sky-high inflation and food shortages saw engineers snapping up jobs in Colombia’s then-burgeoning oil industry or working in multinational companies in capital Bogota.

Slideshow ( 28 images )

Now, however, a growing number of poor Venezuelans are cramming onto buses to make their way to Colombian border towns, from where they try to make money to continue their journey to wealthier countries in South America.

The evictions in Cucuta came in the wake of a small anti-Venezuelan protest in the town on Sunday. Locals said their children could no longer play in parks or sports fields, and expressed fears that the migrants would turn to crime to make a living.

“We’re not discriminating against anyone, but they’re creating problems in residential areas,” said Oscar Gerardino, an official of Colombia’s Norte de Santander provincial government.

The number of Venezuelans living in Colombia jumped 62 percent in the last half of 2017 to more than 550,000, Colombia’s migration authority said earlier this month.

The United Nations is willing to send more aid to Colombia to help the country cope with the arriving migrants, Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on a visit to the Andean country last week.

Reporting by Anggy Polanco, Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien