Ecuador: providing shelter to forcibly displaced Venezuelans


“We left Venezuela a month ago. We have been walking most of the time, with our two children,” says Hernan* while his sons – 5 and 6 years old – hug their mother. “We have not eaten properly since we left, we survived mostly on bread and water. We, adults, have not eaten for days so that our children could eat instead.”

The Sanchez* family patiently waits for the appointment with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a UNHCR partner organisation. This NGO work in Ecuador to support Venezuelan migrants and refugees through European Union funds. The members of this family are “caminantes” (walkers), Venezuelans who had no option but to flee their country to survive. Without money, walking was their only option.

“We left because there was nothing more to eat, there was no work, no money left,” says Rosalía*, Hernan’s wife. “We are so tired; we have been sleeping on the streets this entire time.”

© European Union (photographer: D.Pagani)

The reasons behind a difficult decision

Venezuela is entering the seventh consecutive year of a full-scale economic and political crisis. There is a large shortage of all public services, especially in the healthcare system: 80% of the country’s hospitals lack essential medication, equipment, water and stable electricity supply. Nationwide food shortages have become the new normal.

Since 2015, around 5.5 million Venezuelans have left their country. It is the largest forced displacement in the history of Latin America, and one of the largest migration crises in the world.

The Sanchez family has had to walk most of the 2,000 kilometres separating their town from the Ecuadorean city of Santo Domingo, where they currently are, which is the equivalent of Brussels to Lisbon in distance.

Like the millions of other Venezuelans on the move, they had no money to use any form of transportation. People sometimes offered them a lift out of generosity, but they mostly walked.

“Our intention isn’t to stay in Ecuador but to go to Peru, to Lima, where we heard it’s possible to find a job. I used to work in the construction sector, repairing roofs and houses,” says Hernan. Lima is 1,900 kilometres from where they are, as far as Brussels to Helsinki.

Theirs is a common story among the millions of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have left their country’s crisis. They hit the road with just a few belongings, the little money they managed to gather and started walking for weeks, hoping to find a better life.

Colombia has been the main destination and it hosts some 1.7 million Venezuelans. Many moved on towards Ecuador and Peru, which host 415,000 and a million Venezuelans respectively.

“Millions of people are suffering this kind of desperation in one of the largest ongoing displacement crises worldwide. It consequently requires proportionate EU commitment in terms of humanitarian assistance and support to the host countries to facilitate the integration of displaced Venezuelans in their societies. We continue to focus on the critical needs of the most vulnerable among both the displaced population and host communities,” says Alvaro De Vicente, Head of the Regional Office in Latin America and the Caribbean of the EU’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

© European Union (photographer: S.A.Veintimilla)

EU solidarity on the ground

The European Union allocated €67.7 million in 2020 to fund humanitarian interventions supporting Venezuelan migrants and refugees through a wide network of humanitarian partners across Latin America.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is among the recipients. Thanks to its local partners, UNHCR is implementing EU-funded interventions in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and in the Netherlands Antilles to support more than 300,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

In Ecuador, with EU funds, UNHCR has been able to assist a network of shelters across the country where vulnerable refugees and migrants can stay up to 2 weeks. In this window of time, they receive:

  • legal advice on how to obtain documents to regularise their position
  • information on their rights and the economic possibilities in the cities they want to get to
  • psychological support, meals and basic healthcare.

Shelters are equipped with child-friendly spaces where they can socialise and play.

The coronavirus pandemic has made everything more complicated. The number of people shelters could originally host had to be reduced, and all structures have had to be equipped to implement the necessary biosecurity measures.

In all EU-supported shelters, each person who enters has to be disinfected, all their clothes washed, and they must present the results of a negative rapid coronavirus test. If any of the guests show symptoms while in the shelter, they are requested to quarantine in an isolated room while they wait for a more reliable PCR test. If symptoms persist or worsen, they are referred to the local hospital.

Staff from the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), one of UNHCR’s local partners receiving EU funds, say testing has been a challenge. Many people do not want to undergo a rapid test or wait for a PCR test: they have the urgent need to find a job, to reach another destination. They are too scared of a possible positive result and often decide to leave and not use the shelter, returning to a situation of total vulnerability.

The journey continues

Some migrants and refugees decide to look for opportunities in the same cities where the shelters are located, but others decide to continue the journey. The Velazquez family*, for instance, has been in the shelter run by ADRA in Santo Domingo for a week and has decided to resume walking towards the southern Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil, the country’s business centre.

© European Union (photographer: D.Pagani)

“We are going to walk until we get there, what other options do we have?” says Rosa*, while she cradles her 8-month baby girl. Her partner Mario* puts together all their belongings, ready to leave: they have 270km left to walk.

“I’ve heard there are banana plantations and prawn farms in Guayaquil, so maybe I will find a job there,” he says. Before leaving, they receive an EU-funded hygiene kit containing facemasks, tissues, soap, condoms, moisturiser and anti-bacterial gel.

© European Union (photographer: D.Pagani)

Living conditions in Venezuela continue to worsen and the humanitarian space continues to shrink. Despite the pandemic and border closures, Venezuelans keep fleeing. Colombia registers almost 40,000 of them crossing the border every month and arriving in ever worsening conditions.

Due to the current severe shortage of gasoline in Venezuela, the “caminantes” are now forced to start walking directly from their places of origin, before they manage to even reach the Colombian border by public transport.

“Of course, one day we want to go back to Venezuela,” says Mario. “There is no place like home, but we can’t go back without a job to die of hunger.”

* All names have been changed for protection purposes.

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