“I’ve never seen a government trying this hard to register people and leave the borders open,” Trisha Bury, a deputy director for the International Rescue Committee, a migration nonprofit, told me near the Venezuelan border. “Unfortunately, the scale of this crisis, and the speed at which it changes, is more than Colombia can handle.”
Just 10 years ago, Colombians looked up to their neighbors to the east. Not only were Venezuelans the wealthiest people on the continent, but the country had the most equal income distribution, as well as a fiercely patriotic and charismatic leader and ample energy reserves. Colombians listened with bewilderment and awe as Hugo Chávez, the self-proclaimed revolutionary president of Venezuela, moved the masses and called for a proud pan-Latino identity. Millions even fled Colombia for Venezuela, mostly rural poor displaced by their country’s decades-long civil war. No one imagined then that the two countries’ relationship would change so dramatically.
When Chávez died, in 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, inherited a country in decline. The economy was cratering, and inflation was accelerating. Maduro, blaming a Colombian conspiracy for the economic problems, expelled thousands of Colombians living in a frontier area and shut the border.
When it finally reopened, the flow of people began going in the opposite direction. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans poured into Colombia on the first Sunday the border was open, in July 2016. Initially, many simply bought medicine and food and returned home to Venezuela, though some stayed. As the situation worsened in Venezuela, that shift became more permanent: At least 65,000 Venezuelans moved into Colombia in the first 90 days after the reopening; a year later, that figure had risen to 470,000; and in November 2018, it surpassed 1 million. An estimated 150,000 people have migrated to or through Colombia from Venezuela each month for the past year. That’s about as much as one of the infamous “migrant caravans” that capture attention in the United States per day, every day.
The UN has said it expects the numbers of migrants to become comparable with those crossing the Mediterranean in 2015. By 2021, the Colombian foreign minister has said, his country may be playing host to 4 million Venezuelans. The figures are shocking in any circumstance, let alone for a country that has experienced little incoming migration in recent memory.
Those crossing the border include people such as Gustavo Colón. “I’m going to walk until I find work,” Colón, who used to work at a chicken-processing plant in Maracay, Venezuela, told me. “That’s my mission.”