A girl at an informal refugee camp set up by Indigenous Venezuelans shows off her doll. Photo by Michael Swan

Millions of Venezuelan refugees are in the fight of their lives amidst social, political upheaval

  • February 24, 2019

BOA VISTA, Brazil – As soon as she fills another suitcase with food, Margaret Infante will join other refugees who cross back and forth at the border from Brazil to Venezuela to help feed starving family members.

She will probably get the food, at least in part, from the Our Lady of Consolation parish kitchen. Every day the Catholic parish hands out staples and feeds more than 800 refugees who gather around the Boa Vista bus terminal. 

“We have to be here for now,” Infante said. “We have to help our family back in Venezuela.”

More than three million refugees have fled crisis-stricken Venezuela. The regime of incumbent President Nicolas Maduro, who is accused of fomenting political and social upheaval and rigging the Jan. 10 election, is facing a challenge from the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who has assumed the presidency with the backing of more than 50 nations, including Canada. 

With no end in site to the political and economic crisis, and as extreme food and medicine shortages continue, up to five million more Venezuelans are projected to flee the crisis-stricken nation this year. Those who are stuck in the neighbouring nation of Brazil are cautious about making any plans to return permanently to their home based merely on a political change. The problems run deeper than the presidency, said 53-year-old Ramon Piamo.

“It’s bad there because you can’t eat,” he said. “At least here (in Brazil), if you work you can eat.”

“People are dying in Venezuela of malnutrition,” adds a woman beside him who gives her name as Jhovanna.

Piamo and his family of five share a tiny apartment in Boa Vista with another family of three. It costs 430 reais (just over $150 Cdn) per month, an immense sum for refugees who are unable to find work. Feeding the family requires Church handouts and knocking down mangoes from neighbourhood trees. 

The Piamos are among the vast majority of some 30,000 refugees in this city of just over 300,000 who live outside official refugee camps. As of Feb. 18, there were 5,831 people in official, army-run “abrigos” or camps — about 20 per cent of the Venezuelan refugee total in and around Boa Vista.

Eighteen-year-old Andranik Isaac Piamo Petrosian, married to Aura MacGregor and with three-year-old daughter Eriannys, can’t see himself returning home soon, whatever the outcome of the Guaido-Maduro saga.

“No money to go back,” he said.

Most people are reluctant to give their names and even more reluctant to have their pictures taken. They grimly joke about Maduro’s reach and his eagerness to punish his enemies. But Wilmaris Del Valle Arredondo is so angry she just doesn’t care. Holding her daughter, she invites a picture.

“Put it in a big headline,” she says. “It was a great country. It’s been ruined. Maduro is not worthy to be president. He ruined it all.”

These refugees, however, are better off than about 100 Indigenous refugees settled in a camp in an empty lot outside the city centre. By early morning the mothers are trying to tidy up their sparse possessions around a couple of dying fires. They are surrounded by children. Their homes are their hammocks.

Noticing the obviously well-fed visitors, the Indigenous hold out their hands, palms up just below their chins, and make a motion with their four fingers toward their mouths. They are hungry.

A few Indigenous are in an official, army-run camp just for Indigenous refugees. They have more space and an opportunity to work at crafts, allowing them to earn money.

“They’re not prisoners here. They come and go,” said army communications officer Col. Carla Beatriz Medeiros.

The army’s mission to the migrants in Roraima, Brazil’s most northern state, is humanitarian, Medeiros said. But while the army erected the camps and supplied 500 soldiers to maintain order, the programs are delivered by volunteers, the Church, NGOs and United Nations agencies.

“We have a kind of know-how,” said the officer from Brasilia, who first worked on a humanitarian mission in Haiti. “We say in the army, we are a strong arm and a friendly hand. In this case, it’s a friendly hand,” she said.

Scalabrinian Sr. Valdiza Carvalho co-ordinates a dizzying number of Catholic agencies working to serve the Venezuelans both inside and outside the camps — the Centre for Human Rights, the Scalabrinian Institute for the Human Rights of Migrants, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Catholic Ministry to Migrants of the Diocese of Roraima, Caritas Brazil and the Reference Centre of the Federal University of Roraima. She keeps these groups in touch with various United Nations agencies and maintains lines of communication with the army.

All these agencies, with support from the Church, are trying to serve the most vulnerable among the refugees, said Carvalho. 

From the parish to the diocesan human rights centre, the Church agencies concentrate on helping women who are pregnant, young mothers and those who have suffered abuse. Women, children and Indigenous are suffering the most, she said.

“Roraima in general is dangerous for women. The migrants are even more vulnerable,” she said.

Many of the women she sees are pregnant. Last week one of them was just 14 years old. Some of the mothers are hoping Brazilian citizenship will give their children an advantage. 

For other women, there’s just one option left for them to feed their families.

“Prostitution is a big problem,” said Carvalho.

Along with this industry goes human trafficking, underage prostitution, child sexual abuse and an atmosphere of violence.

Inside the camps sexual and domestic violence are the biggest problem the agencies confront, said AVSI Brasil community participation officer Beatrice Rosetti Betti. Men who are unable to work and unable to provide for their families fall into a kind of depression that can turn some of them into a threat to their own families.

“Women say, ‘I don’t understand, he was never like this,’ ” Betti said.

There have been suicides in the abrigos, she said, and other challenges — a hepatitis outbreak, yellow fever, measles. Before windows were installed, the plastic structures inside the camps became ovens under the sun in this city just north of the equator. 

Some people are beginning to take pride in their plastic houses, planting tiny, decorative gardens outside.

If there’s one thing Carvalho asks of Canadians, it is to support the Caritas program that provides refugees with pre-loaded debit cards, giving them money to cover basic necessities. Having a bank card to withdraw money like anybody else gives refugees dignity. It’s also the cheapest way to deliver the aid. However, due to lack of money, the debit card scheme has been suspended.

For the refugees, it’s hard to think of the future.

Carlos Morales Canton Autor was one of the first to leave Venezuela four years ago, when he noticed lineups for cooking oil. The former agricultural engineer sells necklaces and bracelets along the Boa Vista waterfront. Combined with his wife’s job as a maid, they’re able to keep things together for their two children. Asked how he feels when he sees new refugees arrive, he looks down and says “muito triste” — very sad.

“At the beginning, they had something to eat…. Now people in Venezuela can’t eat. They’re eating garbage,” he said. “For me, it’s very sad. I want to go back to my country.”

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