Cartagena, Mixed Migrants, and Hurricane Iota

10 December, 2020

Aymeric Astre

Aymeric Astre is IsraAID’s Country Director in Colombia, where his team is currently responding to support communities affected by Hurricane Iota.

Three weeks ago, Hurricane Iota struck Cartagena, one of Latin America’s most beautiful colonial towns. 70% of the city flooded, with some 155,000 people affected. Emergency response efforts are supporting those displaced in temporary shelters. But there is an underlying issue — a deep and much-overlooked emergency — that has been ongoing for years.

There are 55,000 mixed migrants — including Venezuelan refugees and Colombian returnees — living in the city. Most are among the more than 300,000 people, one-third of Cartagena, who live in the city’s slums. These communities exist in a permanent state of emergency. Even before the hurricane and the COVID-19 pandemic, harsh conditions, limited livelihood opportunities, and immense barriers to social integration made life extremely difficult for this substantial part of Cartagena.

Cartagena is just a three-hour flight from Miami. It’s home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in an OECD country. Millions flock here each year to enjoy the Caribbean culture, food, and attractions. But there is a real, ongoing emergency in parts of the city tourists are unlikely to see. And while the heavy rains that came with Hurricane Iota certainly exacerbated matters, the underlying issue that demands attention is not exclusively a result of climate change or water damage: it’s the ongoing migrant crisis.

Over the last years, more than 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees and Colombian returnees have crossed the border, seeking safety and a life of dignity. Many of these communities face immense discrimination and xenophobia, buoyed by limited resources. The Colombian public education and health systems are overwhelmed, and mixed migrants often lack the information to access the services they need.

IsraAID first arrived in Cúcuta, a border city, to offer humanitarian assistance in early 2019. In the time since, we’ve established two Child Friendly Spaces in Barranquilla, where there are few humanitarian actors, to provide integrated education and psychosocial support services to mixed migrant children and their families. We’re also working in Cartagena, administering Psychological First Aid to those currently living in shelters, providing educational resources in partnership with local libraries for out-of-school children, and working to ensure schools have adequate hygiene facilities and resilience-building tools to support children as they return to school.

As a humanitarian aid organization, our job is both responding to the immediate disaster and addressing the underlying issues, working together with affected populations. Many people around the globe are supporting the communities in Cartagena and others in the region, working to rebuild after the hurricanes. But this isn’t enough. Without also focusing on the hidden emergency, it will be that much more difficult for communities to build back better after crises.

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