An anthill. That’s the closest image that comes to mind when you try to describe what happens on the Simón Bolívar bridge. The bridge separates (and unites) Venezuela and Colombia, in the Colombian province of Norte de Santander. An incessant flow of people walking — old and young, with empty hands or overloaded with wheelchairs, shopping carts made out of a few metal wires, children’s backpacks, babies in arms — surrounded by screaming street vendors selling their modest wares.
We have traveled here to visit the humanitarian response programmes to the immigration crisis developing at this border. I had seen many images of the bridge in the press and on television, so I wasn’t expecting any surprises. But, instead of a single flow from Venezuela to Colombia, we found a never-ending stream of people coming and going in both directions, many of whom are the so-called “pendulum” migrants — tens of thousands of people living in neighboring areas of Venezuela who cross the border every day to go to school, visit the doctor or buy basic necessities and then return home.
As soon as we cross the bridge, we come across the first checkpoint for migrants, organized by the Colombian government in collaboration with various NGOs and United Nations agencies. UNICEF is in charge of facilitating access to drinking water, an essential lifeline under a scorching sun. There we meet Adriana, 26 who is eight months pregnant and with epilepsy. She arrived in Colombia seeking medical attention, impossible to obtain in her country. A little further, a mother arrives asking for help for her son who is running a fever. A family has walked for hours to access a Wi-Fi point and talk to their father who is waiting for them in Guayaquil. Grandparents ask for information, so they can offer treatment to their granddaughter. It just goes on and on.
A few minutes later, we were at a public health centre supported by UNICEF that offers free care: vaccination, monitoring of weight and nutritional status, support from psychologists and social workers. The nurses tell us that they vaccinate about 40 children a day “and the resources are not enough”. Many children arrive late in their vaccination schedule and many with feeding problems. I see a young girl with her baby in her arms. They have just arrived having been out on the street for two days; she is frightened and lost. Apart from the problems posed by the situation in Venezuela they have to also face the risks of the road, the uncertainty of their destiny and, according to a psychologist, many other challenges related to domestic violence or unwanted pregnancies.
We continue our journey, this time to traverse a few kilometers until we reach a rural community where two other types of “uprooted” people coexist. One, the Venezuelan migrants who have settled there. The other, Colombian returnees: women and children now making their way back to Colombia from a Venezuela that once gave them shelter and protection, when they themselves fled armed violence. One of them is Omaira, a UNICEF volunteer with an easy smile and restless hands. She decided that the time had come to return the hospitality to the Venezuelans and created the “Peace Weavers” project, taking advantage of what she knows how to do best: weave. This project offers an alternative for children to play and receive protection, and a space of coexistence for all.
A little further on, the road begins to go uphill. We reach the first slopes of the Andes. Cars and trucks at full speed are passing the groups comprising the third great profile of migrants: the “caminantes” (walkers). Now there is no going back. Now there is only one way, or perhaps, it is better to say: a flight forward, always forward. They cross the border on foot, with the few belongings they have managed to carry. Their goal is to follow the route to where relatives or friends await them: other Colombian cities, Ecuador, Peru or even Chile. We find them in the first UNICEF-supported transit shelter, through which more than 40,000 people have passed since January, including some 500 children a week. What they value most is the Wi-Fi. What they need most are warm clothes and food. What unites them is the disorientation from the journey (“how long does it take to get to Cali?”).
We cannot leave taking a border bridge, in this case the Ureña. The time is 5:00 am. The conditions, inhospitable – today it poured like tropical rain. The actors, more than 2,000 children who cross the border every day to go to 15 different schools in the area. Some must get up as early as 4:00 am to start school at 7:00. We went with one of the buses to the educational institution Misael Pastrana Borrero, which in just two years has seen its enrollment grow by 50%. Its director, Pablo Silva, tells us about his challenges and expansion plans: “we receive all children with love”. One of the canteens needs to serve 850 students, but only has the capacity for 64. So, they must do no less than 13 shifts … of five minutes each! The person in charge of the dining room, Dori Fuentes, tells us: “If only we could enlarge the space so that they had ten minutes to eat…” She mirrors our feelings about the situation in Colombia: solidarity and a warm welcome, but also concern because of not-enough resources, and the inexhaustible demand.
These are stories from the border, of journeys back and forth with childhood as the great protagonist. Of children who need medical assistance and access to school, housing and protection, affection and to feel welcome. Their numbers grow every day, as do their needs. The time to answer their call is now.
Marta Arias is the global coordinator of UNICEF’s Uprooted Children campaign, which focuses on promoting better conditions for migrant and refugee children around the world.