In the midst of the humanitarian crisis that has followed the economic collapse of Venezuela, in which approximately 5.2 million Venezuelans have escaped the country, female refugees have faced a significant cost with their vulnerability to exploitation, including sexual and labour trafficking. There has been a mass movement of Venezuelans, including those travelling by foot, into neighbouring countries, via legal and illegal routes. Issues related to the COVID-19 crisis led to greater illegal entry and the use of informal trail roads (trochas). In neighbouring Colombia, the pandemic lockdown has forced Venezuelans, who make up over 50 percent of that country’s informal labour force, indoors and without a source of income.
Country director for Care International in Ecuador, Alexandra Moncada, said “There are as many as 400 evictions a day in Ecuador alone under the pandemic, due to the inability to pay rent, forcing entire families to sleep on the street, including pregnant women and children. Life conditions have turned from bad to worse, especially for hundreds of adolescent girls from impoverished and migrant households.”
Karina Bravo, a former sex worker turned advocate through the Latin American Network of Sex Workers, said “Venezuelan refugees from Bogotá to Lima forced into sex work to survive have no option but to continue working during the coronavirus pandemic.” She added “The conditions for sex workers now under the pandemic is worrying. Quarantine measures have meant they are unable to generate enough income for their families back in Venezuela, or even to sustain themselves.”
Other issues for sex workers in the lockdowns have been the dwindling of medical services. Health centres are essentially no longer providing condoms and health checks. Bravo also said “On top of the lack of medical care, they are experiencing food shortages, emotional stress and increased rates of gender-based violence including stabbings and rape as local law enforcement officials are preoccupied enforcing lockdown and quarantines. Things are desperate here, we need more help.”
Moncada also said “There is a general lack of resources and mechanisms in place to provide shelter, food and protection to women and adolescent girls (some so young as 12 to 14) and even their children. The world needs to acknowledge these horrible situations, and to act, to improve the levels of humanitarian response.”
Carolina Moreno, director of the Migration Studies Center at Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, highlighting the risks of Venezuelan women being evicted, said “The risk of being sexually abused is enormous, and that – added to the fear of reporting [abuse] – puts them in the worst scenario when it comes to lack of protection.”
Calls to domestic violence hotlines increased to an average of 122 a day across Colombia, between March 25 and April 11, versus 53 daily for the same time period last year. Bogota mayor Claudia Lopez stated in April that one of these six calls to the city’s line were from Venezuelan women. Real numbers can be higher, because the lack of legal status of many of these women leaves them afraid to report sexual crimes.
A recent report by the Observatory of the Venezuela Migration Project and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that in the first four months of 2020, migrant victims of trafficking were 20 percent higher than for all of 2019. The large majority of the victims were Venezuelan women.
In Colombia, the border with Venezuela was closed on March 15, along with a suspension of international flights through August. However, Venezuelans continue to enter the country in search of food or work, in the face of worsening conditions in Venezuela. Non-profit Uniandes predicts that there 4,000 people crossing the river from Venezuela into Cucuta, Colombia, every day, through trochas. These crossings are controlled by gangs and trafficking networks, and charge $2.65 per person, which is a large sum for Venezuelans, who have a basic monthly salary of less than $4. These trips place women making the journey at great risk for sexual assaults. Some women crossing from these routes end up being trafficked for sex.
In light of the issues that Venezuelan refugee women are facing in neighbouring countries, including trafficking and exploitation, a much larger provision of supports is necessary to combat the factors that lead women into these situations. One of the striking statistics is that on a per capita basis, Venezuelan refugees are only receiving $125, compared to $1,500 for Syrian refugees from the Syrian crisis. Without a significant mobilization of international support, the number of refugees is expected to reach over 6 million by the end of the year. The pandemic and the lockdowns that have come with it are challenging for many, and for such marginalized people, the situation is that much graver. Public health interventions such as the distribution of condoms must continue to be supported, in a manner that is consistent with pandemic concerns, so that some of the hazards for those in sex work, which includes a number of refugees from Venezuela, can be addressed. Providing support and assistance to the refugees can reduce the impact that forces such as gangs and trafficking networks have. What is clear is that there must be a localized, ground level approach to the refugee crisis that swelled over the years from the Venezuelan crisis. Measures must be carefully considered, as there are approaches that can unfortunately lead to exploitative networks becoming stronger, lucrative, and more underground. Addressing the needs of the refugee women directly is essential. At a greater level, effectively addressing the worsening crisis in Venezuela must remain a critical and central objective.