Desaguadero, Peru The decision was as simple as it was desperate: that what they were fleeing was much worse than any dangers they might face, so Greisy Acero Duarte and her husband Jhon Navarro took the gamble. On May 28, 2021, the young couple left their hometown of Táchira in western Venezuela with their two small children, Acero's sister Milagros, and her 10-year-old son and headed south for Chile, more than 3,000 miles away.
“Sometimes our children ask for food there, and you don't have anything to give them,” Acero said. “That's why we walked out of our country with no money in our pockets.”
The family couldn’t afford passports, let alone airfare, so they hitchhiked and walked in worn-out shoes. They slept on the streets. Kind strangers provided a meal here, an occasional hotel room there. They took buses when they could beg tickets, relying on God and Google Maps to guide them through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
They’d been on the road three months when they reached southern Peru and the border town of Desaguadero, the main transit point for Venezuelans crossing into Bolivia. By then it was late August, winter in the high Andes, and none of them had coats. Their possessions consisted of a battered suitcase missing a wheel, a few backpacks, a dirty sponge mattress, and two kittens they’d picked up along the way to keep the children company.
Desaguadero is bisected by a narrow river that marks the border between the two countries. The bridge that serves as the official crossing was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so a boat ride was the family’s surest way into Bolivia—assuming the police didn’t turn them back or demand a bribe. But first they needed the fare: six Peruvian soles (about $1.50) each. A friend and fellow traveler managed to scrounge up the money, and the group was on the move.
Venezuelans usually cross the river under cover of darkness, and it was now approaching noon. But it was Friday, market day, a good time to make the crossing, a local taxi driver said, because the police usually stay away on market day. The river was busy, with dozens of small rowboats crisscrossing the gently rippling waters. The fare paid, the parents took photos of their children posing in the boat. Minutes later the family arrived in Bolivia.
But they had no intention of staying put. “We don’t have anyone there, no relatives, no friends, we have no one,” Acero said. In Chile, there were friends from home waiting with the promise of a job. Within days, Acero and her family reached the border town of Pisiga, where this year alone at least a dozen people have died attempting to cross into Chile. The family entered and exited Bolivia without incident, and without any documentation. There is no official record of their passage.
Millions fleeing south
There’s a signpost in Bolivia’s eastern city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra that’s easy to miss. A dozen colorful rectangles indicating the distance to various locations sprout from a metal pole. Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, sits 4,907.6 kilometers (3,049.4 miles) away from this spot near the midpoint of the continent. A plaque at the base of the signpost christens Santa Cruz de la Sierra the “poetic heart of South America.” Other locations might dispute the claim, but what is certain is that Santa Cruz, as it’s commonly referred to, is the heart of a small but growing community of Venezuelans who have escaped their troubled homeland.
Located atop the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela was one of South America’s most prosperous countries until plunging oil prices, poor governance, corruption, political turmoil, and crippling U.S. sanctions hollowed it into a decayed petrostate. Hyperinflation and economic collapse led to severe shortages of food, medicine, and electricity. Some 96 percent of Venezuelans now live in poverty.
Venezuela has one of the worst crime rates in the world, as well as the highest rate of violent deaths per capita in Latin America. In 2020, almost 12,000 people met violent ends, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a figure that is seven and a half times the global average.
Since 2014, at least 5.6 million Venezuelans—more than 18 percent of the population—have fled the hunger, crime, violence, and collapse of public services that have destroyed their homeland. It’s an exodus that the Organization of American States has called “the largest exile crisis in the history of the region.” Globally, it is second only to Syria, where a decade-long conflict has propelled 6.7 million people out of their war-torn state. Yet according to the OAS, Venezuela’s migration crisis may exceed Syria’s once pandemic travel restrictions ease and borders reopen.
Most of the millions of Venezuelans on the move have headed south, not north. Bolivia—a landlocked state wedged between Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru—is primarily a transit zone for those heading deeper south into Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, but it’s also becoming a destination country. Whether this trend will become a sustained pattern or merely a blip caused by pandemic-related border closures remains to be seen.
The International Organization of Migration notes that some Venezuelans are returning to Bolivia from Peru and Chile because of rising xenophobia and discrimination, as well as better access to healthcare and a lower cost of living. Bolivia currently hosts about 10,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants, a figure that has doubled in the past year. Peru, by contrast, is now home to 1.1 million Venezuelans, while Chile hosts about 480,000. Such large communities can be targeted as scapegoats, whereas Bolivia’s small Venezuelan population more easily melts into a country of 11.8 million people.
Most Venezuelans who stay in Bolivia live in Santa Cruz, where the warm, humid weather feels more like their former home than the cold climate of the Andes. Carolina del Valle, a 39-year-old petroleum engineer and mother of two, arrived in Santa Cruz in 2018 with her mother and children. There was no single incident that pushed her and her husband out of Venezuela, she says, but each day was worse than the one before. The family’s two-earner income barely covered food.
“The quality of life deteriorated,” she says, “the healthcare, the insecurity.” Like many Venezuelans now in Bolivia, her husband came before his family to help smooth their transition. Trained as a geologist, he now drives a taxi. She found administrative work in a textile factory and started a side business with her mother making and selling empanadas.
As professionals with some means, del Valle and her family were able to fly into Bolivia. But millions of so-called “walkers,” like Acero and Navarro, take one of two main southern land routes. There’s the arduous Andean corridor that the young family took, from Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and into Chile, and the less-traveled Amazonian route, from Venezuela through the jungles and forests of Brazil across the Mamoré River into the northeastern Bolivian city of Guayanamerín. Both routes are harrowing journeys across thousands of rugged miles. The ordeal proves deadly for some and devastating for many.
“Thank God we didn’t arrive as badly as some families,” del Valle says. “We didn’t arrive with empty hands, but there are some people who get here in very bad condition, in precarious conditions … it’s very difficult.”
A generous response
Venezuelans aren’t the only refugees fleeing to the south rather than the north. The flow of people globally is predominantly southward, and countries in the global south now host 86 percent of the world’s displaced people.
Yet such movements are more often referred to as calamities when the direction is south to north—from South and Central America to North America, for instance, or when Syrians fled to Europe in 2015. All of Europe absorbed a million Syrian refugees that year, while most of Syria’s neighboring states each took in many more Syrians than that. Even so, reports of the “Syrian refugee crisis” centered on Europe rather than the Middle East.
“I do believe that Europe has a lot to learn,” says Juan Carlos Murillo, regional representative for southern Latin America with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Imagine, one million Syrian refugees was a huge, huge crisis in Europe. We’re talking about more than 5.6 million [Venezuelan] refugees and migrants … and still the region is very generous in terms of its response.”
Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have granted Venezuelans various permissions to stay either temporarily or permanently and have introduced measures to ease their integration. Meanwhile, policies in the global north—such as U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, and tight border controls aimed at curbing the northern trails—further impact movement within the south.
In Santa Cruz, no one neighborhood has become a “little Caracas” with a concentration of Venezuelans. Instead, a key communal space is online, in social media groups run by more established members of the local Venezuelan diaspora—people who have banded together to help “make the load a little less heavy” for vulnerable recent arrivals, as del Valle puts it. The IOM says the Bolivian government offers no financial assistance, so help comes mainly from humanitarian organizations and other Venezuelans.
Del Valle’s WhatsApp group of about 15 volunteers is one of several that use social media, including Facebook and Telegram, to create what she calls “a chain of aid,” providing newcomers with food, clothes, footwear, shelter, and information. The efforts are self-financed, with people contributing what they can. “Since we are in the food business, we offer them food and some meals,” del Valle says, adding that the social media networks quickly spread the news when newcomers arrive and need help.
And they continue to arrive. Although the pandemic has closed borders, it hasn’t stopped Venezuelans from taking even riskier routes across Latin America and the Caribbean, further increasing their vulnerability to traffickers, smugglers, and armed gangs. Several countries, including Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, have also militarized their frontiers in an effort to curb migration. It’s estimated that between 500 to 900 Venezuelans a day continue to flee a country that once generously hosted refugees. Before the pandemic closed borders, the daily figure was 5,000.
The Reverend Ildo Griz, director of the Scalabrini International Migration Network’s mission in Bolivia, sees many families impatient to leave Bolivia for what they consider lands of greater opportunity. He tries to encourage them to stay and end their exhausting, perilous journeys.
The 57-year-old Griz is part of a Christian organization that has shelters—known as Casas del Migrante, or migrant homes—throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. There are eight in Bolivia. “We have managed to form a protection network,” Griz says, “what we call solidarity and safe corridors where [refugees and migrants] are assisted from their country of origin practically to their destination country.”
That assistance includes food, shelter, and information about the safest bus routes, the cost of fares, and areas to avoid. “We never promote irregular migration,” the priest says, “but we know that migration exists already, and we are located at the borders to provide help.” It’s a benevolent network to counter the malevolent ones preying on Venezuelans and others moving through Latin America and the Caribbean.
In addition to providing meals and a bed, the organization also offers entrepreneurial courses in trades, such as hairdressing and carpentry, as well as workshops, including digital marketing and financial planning. “We help them make their life plan,” Griz says. People find him through word of mouth or referrals from police or state institutions.
For Venezuelans who opt to stay in Bolivia, the mission provides several months’ rent, basic home furnishings, supplies for a small business endeavor, and information about access to education, healthcare, and other state-provided services, as well as legal assistance. Cultural events such as soccer tournaments between Bolivians and Venezuelans also help integrate refugees and migrants into their new communities.
Mabel Coba took advantage of Scalabrini’s generous assistance to establish a thriving baking business in the small town of Batallas, high in the Altiplano region. The 46-year-old mother of three was an accountant in Venezuela. After a series of odd jobs in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, she heard about Griz’s foundation through a friend. She completed a digital marketing course and one in financial planning. Coba moved to Batallas from La Paz where the small-town hospitality and cheaper rents helped her assimilate and quickly become part of the community. “People know me because of my cakes,” she says.
She sells her baked goods every Saturday at a market stall and also takes orders via her Facebook page. “The foundation gave me the oven, the refrigerator, this table, the mixer, utensils,” she says, sitting in her small kitchen. It also helped arrange treatment for one of her daughters who has a hormonal growth problem and the other who has a learning disability. She’s happy with her decision to settle in Bolivia, although she says she would return to Venezuela if conditions improve.
Still, most of the Venezuelans that Griz helps don’t want to stay in Bolivia. “Of a group of 183 that we had last month,” he said, referring to July, “only five stayed.” He says the difficulty and cost of obtaining paperwork to legally remain in the country is a key limiting factor. Until recently, migrants and refugees who entered Bolivia irregularly faced fines of around 28 Bolivianos ($4) for every day they were illegally in the country. In September, the Bolivian government approved an amnesty to encourage Venezuelans and others to legalize their status, a move the interior minister said would help thousands of people.
Refugees or migrants?
The legal difficulties in Bolivia are also rooted in definitions: Are displaced Venezuelans refugees or economic migrants? The difference can determine whether a person gets permission to stay or is deported. Refugees are internationally protected as persecuted people and cannot be sent back to their country of origin, whereas migrants can.
In Bolivia, the definition seems to depend somewhat on domestic politics and who’s in power at a given time. In any case, the number is tiny. From 1983 to mid-2021, only 1,165 people of various nationalities were granted refugee status, with Peruvians accounting for almost half of that figure, according to CONARE, Bolivia’s National Refugee Commission—La Comisión Nacional del Refugiado. All but one of the 243 Venezuelans on the list were recognized as refugees in 2020, under the previous right-wing government of Jeanine Añez, which was hostile to both its domestic socialist political opponents who are currently in power, as well as their co-ideologues ruling Venezuela. In 2019, under Bolivia’s socialists, none of the 833 Venezuelans who applied for refugee status received it.
Claudia Barrionuevo, the director of CONARE, says that 108 of those 242 Venezuelans recognized as refugees never returned to receive the paperwork attesting to their new status. She suspects many Venezuelans file the free refugee application just so they can stay in the country legally and avoid the daily fines before moving elsewhere. “These people are economic migrants,” she says, adding that recognizing them as refugees “delegitimizes the institution of the refugee.”
Her view isn’t shared by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or the OAS, which say Venezuelans should be considered refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. “They are not migrants,” UNHCR’s Murillo says. “Regardless of ideological positions or how close one government is to the other, the question is whether we are talking about people who fulfill the refugee criteria, and in UNHCR's opinion, [Venezuelans] do.”
Juhnnycer Magallanes, a 30-year-old radiology technician, is one of the few Venezuelans to receive refugee status in Bolivia. “We were lucky,” she says. “When there was the change of government, they closed the doors.”
The mother of three arrived in February 2020 after spending seven months in Peru. The family of five didn’t have enough money to travel together, so they left Venezuela in waves: first the husband, Dalier Aviléz, who was being extorted by criminal gangs, then Magallanes and her two toddlers under three, after the gangs threatened to kidnap the babies for ransom. Magallanes’ 11-year-old daughter, Dalianny, was the last to leave Venezuela. She traveled with an uncle to join her family in Bolivia in August 2021.
Magallanes left home before the pandemic, in June 2019, when borders were still open. A guide mapped out the journey with a detailed itinerary of bus routes, hotels, and border crossings. As is common, the guide didn’t accompany her and her children. She traveled the Andean corridor legally and entered Peru as a tourist. The seven-day trip, including the guide’s fees, cost $130. Her daughter Dalianny's journey to Bolivia was much harder and included sections on foot through irregular mountain trails. The cost was $600.
The family left Peru after Avilés, the husband, was exploited by his employers at a car dealership who took advantage of his undocumented status to withhold his pay. Magallanes’ tourist visa was also about to expire, and she feared staying in the country illegally and risking deportation. So the family crossed into Bolivia, where they’ve been living in a musty room in a decrepit shared house in central La Paz, above a store selling construction materials. It has been a difficult adjustment, particularly to La Paz’s cold weather and high altitude.
“We want to do our best to stay here,” Magallanes says, but probably not in La Paz. Santa Cruz, she heard, might be a better option. “It has the same climate that we have in Venezuela.”