For Many Fleeing Venezuela’s Chaos, New Trouble in Brazil

In desperation, thousands have left their homeland to seek a better life to the south. But at Brazil’s border, more problems await.

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About 500 members of the Warao tribe live at a concrete shelter outfitted with hammocks and tents in Pacaraima, Brazil. Crowding and unsanitary conditions have contributed to widespread disease.
A version of this story appears in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Fish and taro were the only food Milagros Ribero, 35, and her family could find in their little community in the Orinoco River Delta, home of the Warao, the second largest indigenous group in Venezuela. In June they made the 500-mile journey to Brazil.

“We came searching for food,” Ribero says near her tent in the Janokoida shelter, recently set up for the Warao in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima.

Each day hundreds of struggling Venezuelans arrive at the border, carrying stuff on their backs and documents in their hands. The journey has become more harrowing as Brazilians have begun to lash out at the influx of refugees pouring into their country, putting a strain on limited services. After recent attacks, some Venezuelans have crossed the border back into their home country. Those seeking a better life in Brazil have sold TVs, cell phones, clothes—everything they own—to pay for the trip. They hope to find food, medicine, safety, and jobs in Brazil, basics they no longer can get in their home country because of its free-falling economy, staggering inflation, high rates of violence, and chronic food and medicine shortages. It’s the fallout from a breathtaking collapse in Venezuela, which rode an oil boom from 2004 to 2014 to become one of Latin America’s richest nations, then saw its fortunes tumble amid falling oil prices, soaring government deficits, and persistent corruption.

INDIGENOUS EXODUS

The Warao people, a native group from the Orinoco River Delta in Venezuela, are fleeing hunger and disease as state support collapses. Unable to sustain themselves in their rural homeland, they’re hitch-

hiking, taking buses, and walking to refugee centers to trade their village ways for city life in Brazil.

VENEZUELA

GUYANA

MAP

AREA

BRAZIL

SOUTH

AMERICA

Warao migration route

Venezuelan bus terminal

Refugee shelter

ATLANTIC

OCEAN

TRINIDAD

AND

TOBAGO

WARAO

HOMELAND

Mt. Roraima

9,219 ft

2,810 m

The Warao leave home in canoes and typically head to bus terminals in nearby cities.

A bus ride from Ciudad Guayana to Santa Elena can take two days. Ticket costs are equal to about one U.S. dollar but vary wildly with inflation. The monthly minimum wage in Venezuela was the equivalent of $1.14 as of June 2018.

Most migrants walk six hours from Santa Elena to cross the border to the town of Paca­raima. Once in Brazil, many continue south to look for jobs in larger cities such as Boa Vista or Manaus.

*Estimated number in shelters AS OF AUGUST 2018

RILEY D. CHAMPINE, NGM STAFF. SOURCE: UNHCR

INDIGENOUS EXODUS

VENEZUELA

GUYANA

The Warao people, a native group from the Orinoco River Delta in Venezuela, are fleeing hunger and disease as state support collapses. Unable to sustain themselves in their rural homeland, they’re hitchhiking, taking buses, and walking to refugee centers to trade their village ways for city life in Brazil.

MAP

AREA

BRAZIL

SOUTH

AMERICA

Warao migration route

Venezuelan bus terminal

Refugee shelter

TRINIDAD

AND

TOBAGO

ATLANTIC

OCEAN

DEPARTURE BY BOAT

WARAO

HOMELAND

The Warao leave home in canoes and typically head to bus terminals in nearby cities.

SOUTHBOUND BY BUS

A bus ride from Ciudad Guayana to Santa Elena can take two days. Ticket costs are equal to about one U.S. dollar but vary wildly with inflation. The monthly minimum wage in Venezuela was the equivalent of $1.14 as of June 2018.

Mt. Roraima

9,219 ft

2,810 m

ARRIVAL ON FOOT

Most migrants walk six hours from Santa Elena to cross the border to the town of Paca­raima. Once in Brazil, many continue south to look for jobs in larger cities such as Boa Vista or Manaus.

*Estimated number in shelters AS OF AUGUST 2018

RILEY D. CHAMPINE, NGM STAFF. SOURCE: UNHCR

TRINIDAD

AND

TOBAGO

ATLANTIC OCEAN

INDIGENOUS EXODUS

The Warao people, a native group from the Orinoco River Delta in Venezuela, are fleeing hunger and disease as state support collapses. Unable to sustain themselves in their rural homeland, they’re hitchhiking, taking buses, and walking to refugee centers to trade their village ways for city life in Brazil.

Warao migration route

Venezuelan bus terminal

Refugee shelter

DEPARTURE BY BOAT

WARAO

HOMELAND

The Warao leave home in canoes and typically head to bus terminals in nearby cities.

VENEZUELA

GUYANA

MAP

AREA

SOUTHBOUND BY BUS

A bus ride from Ciudad Guayana to Santa Elena can take two days. Ticket costs are equal to about one U.S. dollar but vary wildly with inflation. The monthly minimum wage in Venezuela was the equivalent of $1.14 as of June 2018.

BRAZIL

Mt. Roraima

SOUTH

AMERICA

9,219 ft

2,810 m

ARRIVAL ON FOOT

Most migrants walk six hours from Santa Elena to cross the border to the town of Paca­raima. Once in Brazil, many continue south to look for jobs in larger cities such as Boa Vista or Manaus.

*Estimated number in shelters AS OF AUGUST 2018

RILEY D. CHAMPINE, NGM STAFF. SOURCE: UNHCR

Since 2017 more than 58,000 Venezuelans have settled in Brazil, the largest migratory movement between the two countries in history. The border region mainly had been known as a place for adventure travelers in search of Mount Roraima, the 9,219-foot plateau that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World, which imagines encounters between explorers and dinosaurs. But no adventure awaits those who make it to Brazil. Many run out of money and have their journeys stalled in Pacaraima, which not long ago was a quiet town of 12,375 but now is where hundreds, and likely more, live on the streets, sleeping in tents and parking lots. They gather on sidewalks and cook what they can find, mostly rice, pasta, and beans. Tensions between Pacaraima residents and Venezuelans entering Brazil exploded in August: Frustrated residents set fire to migrant encampments after an alleged attack on a local shop owner.

View Images
A Warao woman cooks dinner over a campfire near Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela, on the way to the Brazilian border. Many Warao walk or hitchhike to shelters in Brazil, a journey that can take days.

Officially, Pacaraima has 434 homeless Venezuelans, but that seems understated. Padre Jesús Esteban, a Spanish priest, organizes a daily breakfast of coffee, bread, and fruit for more than 1,500 people. “There are never leftovers,” he says.

After losing three jobs in a year, Jesús Gómez, 28, left Venezuela with his girlfriend, Eunice Henríquez, 27. They sleep in a tent they used to take to the beach. “It was for travel. Now it’s our home,” says Gómez, a former security guard. Henríquez, a nurse who gave up her job because her salary was low, now sells coffee in Pacaraima. Her daily pay is enough for one meal. Even in such a precarious situation, the couple—who lived in a small bedroom in Gómez’s parents’ house—don’t regret crossing the border into Brazil.

Many migrants walk another 135 miles to Boa Vista, Roraima’s state capital. The city of 332,000 is more vibrant, the economy more stable. Venezuelans are everywhere, asking for jobs. Swarms of people stand at traffic lights, cleaning windshields for coins or selling local products, such as Brazilian flags during the recent World Cup. Rates for laborers have dropped to less than $10 a day. Desperate migrants often move from city to city, hoping things will get better.

Two centers, one each in Pacaraima and Boa Vista, have been designated for the Warao. They cook over wood fires, weave and sell crafts, and try to maintain some of their routines. There is health care as well as food, but the conditions are precarious. In one of the shelters, the smell of sewage is overpowering, and with the rainy season one courtyard is flooded.

View Images
After getting a job as a trainer, a Venezuelan migrant is allowed to sleep at the gym where he works during the day.
View Images
About 30 Warao live at the San Felix, Venezuela, refugee camp, which can be viewed from the bus station. Others, in transit from the Orinoco Delta to the border between Venezuela and Brazil, spend one or more nights here.

The Brazilian government, working with the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, has opened nine refugee centers in Boa Vista. More migrants are waiting to join the 4,200 refugees there. The plan is to send them to other Brazilian states and welcome new migrants, but the process is slow. Although some manage to rent small spaces on the outskirts of the city, life is so hard that a few consider going home.

“There’s nothing else to do here,” says Adriana Bolívar, 21, who shares a tiny room with her family. “We’ve been so humiliated. I know this is not my country, but if they only put themselves in our shoes, they would understand that we’re only trying to survive.”

View Images
Hammocks provide traditional sleeping arrangements over the concrete floor at Pacaraima’s Janokoida shelter. These two brothers have lived there for several months.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that migrant encampments set on fire were camps created by the Brazilian government. They were unofficial camps.