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Stranded Venezuelans build camp in Colombia amid pandemic

BOGOTA

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Out of work, broke and left with few good options during the pandemic, a growing number of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia have set up a makeshift camp on a tree-covered patch along a highway outside the capital of Bogota.

Aside from 160 tents they've built out of black plastic and ropes, they have no running water, bathrooms or electricity. They survive on the charity of neighbors who bring food.

The migrants are crowded with up to six in each tent and no way to easily wash their hands, creating the potential for the new coronavirus to spread, although residents said they haven't yet experienced any illness.

“We're living in a nightmare," said Cecilio Zagarra, an organizer and one of hundreds in the camp. "We don’t know when it will end.”

In the last two weeks, Colombian authorities slowed the number of Venezuelan migrants being allowed to travel to the border city of Cucuta from 400 a day by more than a quarter. They say Venezuelan authorities are only allowing Venezuelans to cross three days each week at what's normally a bustling border crossing.

This has caused a bottleneck of Venezuelans trying to go home. The new shantytown just north of Bogota has become home to hundreds of stranded Venezuelans, many children, pregnant women and the elderly.

The Associated Press visited the makeshift camp, observing a lack of sanitary conditions. Most of the migrants do not have masks, and keeping a safe distance from others is nearly impossible.

Zagarra, 30, is a leader in the community. He said that like many there, he uprooted from crisis-torn Venezuela two years ago and traveled to Colombia, where he found steady work building communication towers.

Then, the coronavirus swept across Latin America, bringing with it orders to stay at home and quickly leaving him penniless.

“It changed my life by 180 degrees," Zagarra said. “The resources we had ran out. They kicked us out for not paying the rent.”

Zagarra and others said they were forced to make the camp, receiving no help from the government. While maintaining order in their community, Zagarra said they're pressuring officials to pay for the long bus journey back to the Venezuelan border.

"We don't have the necessary resources to pay for the tickets to get back,” he said.

They're among a flood of an estimated 5 million Venezuelans who fled their native country in recent years, escaping a historic crisis that has left most without reliable running water, electricity, gasoline and health care. The largest number of Venezuelan migrants — 1.8 million — crossed into Colombia. Others went to Peru and Ecuador.

Quarantine orders in these countries have sparked a reverse flow of Venezuelans, who say they have no other choice but to return home, where at least they can live with relatives. Roughly half of the Venezuelan migrants worked informally as street vendors and clerks, having no safety net to help them survive without going to work each day.

Colombian migration officials report that so far, more than 72,000 displaced Venezuelans have returned to their native country, many walking up to 20 days carrying their belongings.

Juan Espinosa, a Colombian migration official, told the AP that border communities and bus terminals throughout Colombia are growing crowded.

"This is not the time to move and travel,” Espinosa said, urging them to stay put and isolate as best as they can.

Venezuelan nurse Rosmery Sánchez, 34, said she came to Colombia six months ago. She said she is out of work, homeless and surviving on the charity of nearby residents who bring bread, soft drinks and other food.

“We came to Colombia for better economic stability, but we found the coronavirus,” Sánchez said. “What we are experiencing is a horrible situation that none of us asked for.”