Venezuela (MNN) – 3.4 million Venezuelan citizens, about ten percent of the population, have fled the country because of the economic crisis and political turmoil. The United Nations estimates that the number of people fleeing will continue increasing and that there may be as many as 5.3 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants by the end of 2019.
The Largest Migration in Latin America
“It’s actually the largest migration in the modern history of Latin America,” Bethany Christian Services’ Kristi Gleason says.
Gleason says because of the vast number of Venezuelans fleeing to neighboring and other countries, host nations and governments are becoming overwhelmed with the responsibility to provide aid.
“They are coming into countries that are trying to help, but are not set up to respond to large numbers of refugees or migrating populations.”
Some of the most affected Latin and South American countries have received hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. The UN reports 1.1 million Venezuelans have gone to Colombia, about 506,000 have gone to Peru, 288,000 have gone to Chile, 221,000 have gone to Ecuador, 130,000 have gone to Argentina, and 96,000 have gone to Brazil.
These areas which have received hundreds of thousands of people are now experiencing social and economic strain.
For example, in Cúcuta, a Colombian city that borders Venezuela and has been a key area for refugees as they have fled or attempted to flee into Colombia, many people are trying to access medical services.
Independent reported many people, including women in need of medicine and pregnant women, have been making illegal crossings into Colombia, risking their safety because they’ve been desperate.
“There are long lines, and prices are on the rise because of just the demand market,” Gleason says. “There’s also increases in illegal activities. Prostitution is on the rise, trafficking is on the rise – it’s really affecting the economy, but also, normal societal issues as well with the sheer number of people coming over.”
Humanitarian organizations have been giving support as governments have been overwhelmed, but Gleason says it’s a dire and difficult situation without an easy or quick fix. Much work and support is required to help the millions of people who have fled and the thousands who continue to flee.
A Welcome Center for Refugees
Bethany recently amped up their work in Cúcuta by partnering with the UNHCR and launching a welcome center.
Gleason says at the beginning of 2018, Bethany had one staff member who was working in Bogota, and her sole responsibility was to facilitate intercountry adoptions. As Bethany monitored the situation in Venezuela, they saw that more action needed to be taken.
The organization went to Cúcuta in June 2018 to find a space to work in.
“Frankly, I honestly didn’t know if there was going to be a way for us to serve,” Gleason says. “But it became very evident very quickly that families were really needing support, and that’s what Bethany does best, is working with families to help them stay together, to help mitigate some of those vulnerabilities that they have.”
Bethany met with the UNHCR, and proposed opening a drop-in or welcome center that would support families. Several months later, the center was opened.
“It’s just a safe space for families,” Gleason explains.
“So, what it does is provides a location for people to get a snack, access water, access public toilets, access the internet so if they do have family in other parts of the country or the region, they can email them and connect with family. We are also doing things like handing out hygiene kits, so things like soap, and deodorant, and toothbrushes, toothpaste.”
The welcome center has made families feel safe, and it’s given them relief from the stress of their country’s problems and situation.
Bethany has national staff members on the ground working with and serving families.
“We’re really looking to see how we can better serve, but really the stories of the people that come to work every day, the Bethany workers that come to work every day, the ones that are really doing the heavy lifting and are making a major impact.”
Bethany has also partnered with local churches to provide spiritual support. Pastors are often at the welcome center to help families through counseling and prayer. Gleason says people have even sat and sung hymns together.
“It’s been really nice to see the local Church in Colombia come alongside us. They accepted us right away as we were starting to start our programming. So, it’s been wonderful to feel welcomed by the local Church, but it’s also been really wonderful to see the local Church in Colombia reach out to and serve the people coming in from Venezuela.”
Gleason encourages you to pray for Venezuela and its citizens. Stay informed on the issue so you know how to pray. Pray for families who have been split apart, pray for economic, spiritual, mental, and physical well-being.
Header photo courtesy of Bethany Christian Services via Facebook