Coronavirus & the Venezuelan Refugee Crisis

5 May, 2020

Juliana Peña

IsraAID Colombia Head of Mission Juliana Peña explains why COVID-19 leaves Venezuelan refugees at particular risk — and how her team is supporting communities in need. For almost a year, IsraAID’s team in Colombia has been responding to the ongoing Venezuelan displacement crisis. More than 5 million Venezuelans have left the country due to the worsening humanitarian situation. At least 1.8 million are in Colombia. The two countries share a long history of displacement and migration. During Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict, many crossed into Venezuela as refugees — with large numbers returning to Colombia in recent years, many of whom have not lived in the country for decades. Colombia is also home to the largest population of internally displaced people in the world, with more than 7.8 million IDPs in the country. IsraAID’s team — based in Barranquilla in the Caribbean region — works with Venezuelans, Colombian returnees, and the host community.

The core question we’re asking ourselves now is: how do we implement Child-Friendly programming, without access to Child-Friendly Spaces?

Colombia, like almost every other country in the world, is dealing with social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. More than 7,000 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the country, with the lockdown currently scheduled to last until at least May 11th. With refugees and other vulnerable populations left with limited access to resources, including education, psychosocial support, employment, and food, our team is working to respond to this rapidly shifting environment, seeking to fill the gaps created by this new normal. The pandemic risks making an already urgent humanitarian situation even worse.

Before coronavirus, our team provided educational and psychosocial support services to about 100 children, including refugees and Colombian returnees from Venezuela, and members of the host community here in Barranquilla, each day. IsraAID’s Child-Friendly Spaces serve as a touchpoint for community work, investing deeply in each child’s resilience, development, and potential to become a leader. The core question we’re asking ourselves now is: how do we implement Child-Friendly programming, without access to Child-Friendly Spaces? How do we build community resilience without the interactions that increase trust between disparate people, such as Venezuelan refugees and local Colombians, who are often forced to compete for resources?

Many children are at risk of malnutrition. After a thorough needs assessment, we’re focusing on providing immediate support for the children we work with and their communities. Together with UNICEF, IsraAID co-chairs the child protection cluster in Barranquilla, bringing together all the international NGOs working in this field on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. So we’re also seeing what we can do to impact the bigger picture.

Immediate Needs: Malnutrition & Access to Food

Many Venezuelan refugees living in Barranquilla live in small wooden houses with other families, who between their various incomes, are just able to pay rent. Without proper documentation, the lack of employment opportunities already posed a significant challenge to making ends meet. Now those who worked in the service industry — hotels, bars, and restaurants — have lost their jobs, with many of these businesses shut down, and those who sell goods on the street are unable to go out due to quarantine. This leaves many children at risk of malnutrition, as their caregivers’ income decreases, and puts many families at risk of eviction.

During regular operations, IsraAID’s two Child Friendly Spaces provide two daily meals to the children who attend — but now, these children are left even more vulnerable than they were before. These were the main meals of the day for many of these children, whose parents have now been left without an income. Seeking to fill this gap, we are distributing food baskets for families who need this support. We’re trying to meet immediate needs and focus on what comes next.

Protection Risks: Stress, Xenophobia, Violence & Social Distance
Fewer jobs, and therefore resources, also means that stress skyrockets. Kids notice when their parents are stressed, and too often adults don’t realize that providing stress relief activities for their children can actually offer a similar release for themselves as well. With more competition for resources between the host community of local Colombians, many of whom were themselves displaced by decades of instability and fighting in Colombia, and recently-arrived refugees, there may also be higher levels of xenophobia. Lockdown also makes it likely that we will see an increase in the number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence, like domestic and child abuse. These were issues before COVID-19 drastically shifted the reality on the ground, but, today, we’re even more concerned.

With these issues in mind, we are being creative in how we provide communities with access to psychosocial support programming in a socially distant way. We delivered resilience kits to 50 households, reaching some 250 beneficiaries. These kits include expressive art materials, educational resources, hygiene items like soap and hand sanitizer, and key messaging to combat misinformation on how COVID-19 is spread and what families can do to keep themselves safe. We’ve distributed and shared pamphlets with key self-care tips and activities that parents and children can do together. We’re leading online activities — such as Zumba classes — and encouraging families who can to share their internet access with neighbors who may not be able to attend and connect with others.

Supporting families through this crisis
These programs are already having an impact in the communities we serve. Mileida is a Venezuelan woman with seven children, who came to Barranquilla to escape the humanitarian crisis in her home country. Her 13-year old son attends IsraAID’s Los Guacamayos Child-Friendly Space, in Villa Selene. She had this to say: “This situation that we are going through has affected us a lot emotionally, economically, at home, at work, my children’s education, but it has also united us as a family. We do activities with the children at home with the activity books provided by IsraAID. They have helped us so much, because the guides are not only for our children to learn, but also learning for us as parents.”

Through these initiatives, we’re trying to meet immediate needs and focus on what comes next. Without access to psychosocial, educational, and nutritional support, the pandemic can exacerbate existing needs and vulnerabilities. We’re committed to working with Venezuelan migrants, Colombian returnees, and the host community through this challenging period, and continuing to transition our response efforts as needs change, toward recovery.

Juliana Peña is IsraAID’s Head of Mission in Barranquilla, Colombia

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