Every day, about 40,000 people are forced to flee their countries due to persecution, conflict, or widespread violence. Today, approximately 79.5 million people are displaced from their places of origin. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in December 2019 it was estimated 26 million refugees were spread across the world.
The UNHCR said, in 2020, the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis should be considered the second largest on the planet, just behind that in Syria. In Venezuela, the political, human rights and socioeconomic crisis is getting worse. There are already 1,809,872 people from this nation officially registered as migrants, refugees or displaced persons.
José Fernando Molina and his family are typical examples of the crisis. Living conditions in Venezuela were getting more and more complicated, but they still managed to make a living. After months of planning, hesitation, worrying, and planning some more, the family began a journey to Uruguay in March 2019.
Latin America’s Greatest Exodus
Venezuelans have become one of the largest groups of displaced populations in the world, following the acceleration of mass exodus from 2016. According to UNHCR, there are currently 4.5 million Venezuelans in transit from their homes to other places.
For reasons chiefly related to economics, most choose to go to other countries in the region. Colombia and Peru were the final destinations for many, however, currently more than 37,000 are in Brazil, now the territory with the largest number of Venezuelan refugees recognized in Latin America.
What are the factors in choosing a nation as a refugee’s destination? Initially, the laws of each country and the benefits offered were factors. The language also plays a leading role in the final choice. Until last year, for example, Brazil was not a destination considered by Venezuelans since language was a difficult barrier. Due to changes in the laws of the Hispanic countries, which withdrew benefits previously granted, many Venezuelans began to migrate to Brazil.
José Fernando and his wife, Rubí, chose Uruguay because of the educational opportunities the country offers, and the common Spanish language. He’s an engineering graduate who’d worked as a plant operator at a Venezuelan oil company. Rubí, trained in business administration, took care of the home until the little ones could manage on their own. Life was good before the crisis, but they needed to leave so their three children had better educational opportunities.
However, this decision would bring the largest pilgrimage route taken by Venezuelans: the Andes Mountains, also known as the Latin American integration route. His friends considered the trek a crazy venture, especially when considering that the youngest daughter was just a baby a few months old.
It was also important to consider the fact that they were all going out together, hoping to reach their final destination together, when most migrant families let the head of the household go first.
“I couldn't think of leaving my wife and children in Venezuela. That was not an option for me. The fear of not knowing if they would be well, eating, healthy or even alive would end me. I wasn't going to be able to work. We always faced everything together and this time it wouldn't be different,” said José.
The route chosen by the family included Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and, finally, Uruguay. With a plan drawn up and a backpack on their backs, they faced the biggest challenge of their lives, as one unit.
The Molina family’s greatest concern was for their infant daughter, who was still being breastfed. Such a fragile child generally does not survive an arduous trip of this sort, which would take five months at best, and possibly longer. The family would traverse varied climates without the guarantee of a plate of food or a roof to sleep on every night. They were not sure what the means of transport would be. Perhaps they would have to walk long distances. Rubí, began to consider the possibility of reaching the final destination without the little girl and prepared her heart if that tragic moment came.
Those under the age of 18 represent 52 percent of the refugee population around the world. Studies carried out by UNHCR show that throughout their journey and even at their final destination, most are at risk of abuse, violence, neglect, exploitation, traffic or being pressed into military service.
Many of these children will only know life as refugees: they will spend their whole childhood away from home, away from a school and on more than one occasion they will be alone due to the death of those responsible or their abandonment.
The journey was long and difficult. On many occasions, the family had to sleep on the street and was cold, but never hungry. As José Fermando recalled, “The worst part is not knowing what is going to happen to you the next day. Anxiety about tomorrow weighs too heavily. Do you think we'll make it? Are we going to lose someone? Are we going to have something to eat?”
They faced moments of despair, as when they arrived in Peru and the money was gone. Fear took over: They almost lost hope, but at that crucial moment the Molina family met the Adventist Development and Assistance Resources Agency (ADRA) . With their help they managed to get a living, a roof for sleeping and even tickets to continue the trip to Ecuador.
There, the first thing they did was look for ADRA, as they also did in Argentina. Finally, in October 2019, José Fernando, Rubí, and their three children entered Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, together, hand-in-hand and with tears in their eyes.
“Each refugee represents a vital story: people looking for decent living conditions. The human mobility crisis puts regional solidarity to the test. Therefore, we work to respond to the challenge with justice, compassion, and love,” said Paulo Lopes, director of ADRA for eight South American countries.
ADRA offers help to refugees and people in situations of human mobility in various ways. The most complete of them is carried out in partnership with other institutions in the third sector with the aim of internalizing the Venezuelan in the new country of residence. Through this initiative, it offers resources, housing, education, guidance on documentation and even job search help.
Another initiative is related to people in transit, who pass through the countries where ADRA is present, but do not intend to stay. In this case, they offer places to rest or recover strength, called shelters, as well food, health programs, basic sanitation, nutritional assessments, legal advice, and cash grants. The idea is to help the refugee while on the move from one country to another, so these places are usually located on borders.
For these projects, beneficiaries undergo a selection process, in which aid to vulnerable populations is prioritized.
The third project directly involves ADRA volunteers. The goal is to deliver food and hygiene kits to refugee families through basic baskets or hot lunch boxes offered daily. All of this is possible thanks to donations received.
Since the Venezuelan refugee crisis began, ADRA has helped more than 840,000 people through its 51 projects in South America.
World Refugee Day
One of the populations most affected by the new coronavirus pandemic was that of refugees. For this reason - and following all health recommendations - ADRA continued to work with all its initiatives aimed at this group. Donations from partners and volunteers allowed them not to be left stranded.
And what exactly was noted on June 20, World Refugee Day? Stories such as that of José Molina and his family, which represent the almost 80 million people who have had to leave their homes and face the unknown. Also remembered are so many others who failed. It is a day when one dreams of a world where conflicts, wars, suffering and pain no longer exist.
“The small contributions that we, as individuals or organizations, can make, ease the burden of our refugee brothers. To all our partners and those who, in some way, help us in this arduous task: thank you very much!” declared Eric Leichner, Emergency Manager at ADRA South America.