In northern Peru, I met with Mother Sofia, a nun running a refuge for undocumented Venezuelan families who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets. These families were arriving over the border underweight with no money, she told me. “It’s a harsh and painful reality. They have no food and no work, they’ve come here for a better future.”
I spoke to some of the families sleeping in shelters at the makeshift refugee camp which had been set up by NGOs at the border control point where people who had applied for asylum rather than enter the country illegally (which the majority now do) awaited news from the Government.
Luis Coraspe (21) and his girlfriend Gabriela Gutierrez (17) had arrived in the camp with their nine-month old daughter Luisangelis, Gabriela’s brother and mother in January. When I asked why they’d chosen to regularise their status rather than continuing their journey illegally over the border, Luis told me: “We want to apply to study and work and live our lives in peace. We can’t live our lives on the run.”
Maxfredid Pérez Rodríguez, chief of police for Tumbes region, explained that he had nothing against the first wave of Venezuelans who arrived in Peru a few years ago – “professional, cultured people” in his own words. The more recent arrivals, are different, he said, adding that robberies and assaults were on the rise.
Peruvian economist Elmer Cuba later disputed these claims, and says that violence and security issues in Peru had not worsened with the arrival of Venezuelan migrants but that the press had framed it this way.
Lita Orrego, head of Migration for Tumbes, told me the government was focused on supporting Venezuelan migrants and that these people “are our brothers”.
“We as Peruvians have been through difficult times ourselves and know what migration is like. We need to work to integrate Venezuelans into our communities and fight against xenophobia towards these people.”
Further south in Lima, I met Venezuelans who had been in the country over a year but were still waiting for appointments to confirm their asylum requests. In La Gamarra, Lima’s sprawling textile district, I learned that xenophobia was not an issue for those who arrived two years ago but that anti-Venezuelan abuse was on the increase.
In a refuge in the north of the city, I met 63-year-old Juana who suffered from diabetes and had followed her son to Peru. “I’d never left Venezuela in my life before coming here, I’d never imagined I’d have to leave my home,” she told me. “I can’t go back but I feel scared here.”
Also in Lima, I met middle-class professional Venezuelans who had arrived as part of the “first wave” of migrants but found their qualifications were not recognised in their new home. 12-year-old Victoria, who spoke to me with her parents outside Lima’s migration office, said she had also noticed a change in people’s attitudes to Venezuelans.
“They saw news reports about Venezuelan criminals and I’m the only Venezuelan in the school. They never say anything directly but I can hear them saying” Be careful, she’s Venezuelan, she’ll murder you.”
I arrived back in Europe the weekend the Covid-19 pandemic exploded in Italy. A few weeks later, on March 15th, Peru became the first country in Latin America to introduce quarantine measures and declared a state of national emergency for 90 days as well as closing all its borders. While some of these measures were lifted in early July, Peru’s international borders are set to remain closed until the end of the month.
During the pandemic, Peru, which has recorded more 320,000 cases of Covid-19 and nearly 11,700 deaths caused by the virus, introduced a support scheme for those out of work. However, refugees and migrants were not eligible for this support with many relying on charity handouts to survive during lockdown. The UN warned in the April that more than 200,000 Venezuelan migrant families were in a situation of extreme vulnerability.
Meanwhile, Peru continued to grapple with a national health crisis, particularly in my former hometown of Iquitos, a city already plagued by poverty where hospitals ran out of oxygen in May.
Some Venezuelans in Peru decided during the lockdown to return home because of the lack of work available in the country. Others struggled to put food on the table while also faced with the very real danger of contracting the virus.
By June 2020, a total of 5.1 million people had fled Venezuela. While the coronavirus pandemic did slow this migration flow, thousands are continuing to flee their home country seeking stability elsewhere in Latin America. This migration crisis is not going away. While we Europeans tend not to pay much attention to events unfolding in South America, there is no doubt in my mind that countries like Peru and Colombia cannot deal with this crisis alone. Without international cooperation and support, particularly from Europe, this humanitarian disaster will only get worse.