Women fleeing Venezuela are being targeted for abuse amid pandemic border closures

If Gabriela Ochoa had known what could happen to her down by the Táchira River of which divides Venezuela in addition to Colombia, she never could have crossed.

however her family was desperate.

With government subsidized food growing scarcer in addition to more expensive, Ochoa didn’t even bother seeking government aid. Instead, after a short stint living with her mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, she set her sights on moving to Colombia, where people advised she might find work in addition to a friend had offered to host her.

Ochoa in addition to her children made the idea to the border bridge in early April, after hours of hitchhiking in addition to walking by her hometown, the coastal city of Puerto Cabello — more than 450 miles (730 km) by the border. however the Colombian government had already closed all checkpoints to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus in mid-March.

The only option left for Ochoa to make the idea across to Cúcuta was to cross through one of the nearly 80 muddy, crime-ridden trochas within the Cúcuta area — informal routes across the Táchira river — controlled by criminal gangs, guerrillas in addition to paramilitary groups, she said.

On the first day, Ochoa said she begged people on their way to the trocha to help her cross, with no luck. of which night, she slept on the street with her children, their stomachs roaring with hunger. By the end of the second day, as the sky darkened, a young man finally offered to help her, she said.

As they inched closer to the water, a group of men emerged by the bushes, their heads covered by hoodies.

“They had guns, knives, all kinds of things,” Ochoa recalled. The men grabbed her children in addition to threatened to take them away if she didn’t pay them to cross.

“I thought they were going to kill me in addition to the children,” she said. In tears, Ochoa told them she didn’t have any money in addition to begged them to let them across the river. The men dragged her behind a bush in addition to raped her.

“the idea was horrible,” Ochoa said. “Thank God they didn’t hurt the kids.”

“Thank God they didn’t hurt the kids.”

Beginning in mid-March, as Covid-19 infection rates grew exponentially in Latin America, the majority of countries within the region closed their borders to curb the spread of the virus. however such measures have put women at more risk, according to human rights groups, government officials in addition to researchers.
For years, Colombia has received the bulk of desperate Venezuelans who cross the border to neighboring countries in search of food, medicine in addition to shelter. Its government has provided medical aid, schooling in addition to some job opportunities to fleeing Venezuelans. however the pandemic’s border closure left no safe way for these migrants to cross the border, exposing more women to sexual abuse, kidnapping, trafficking in addition to murder of which can be endemic along informal routes.

Since the start of the pandemic, humanitarian organizations say there has been a marked increase in gender-based violence along the border regions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports a 7% increase within the number of women staying in their three shelters in Cúcuta devoted to women victims of sexual violence, trafficking in addition to single mothers, compared to the same period in 2019 (by April to August). Of the 257 women of which UNHCR supported, the agency says nearly half had experienced gender-based violence.

however the rise in sexual in addition to gender-based violence on the Colombia-Venezuela border predates the pandemic. In 2019, Profamilia, one of the main sexual in addition to reproductive rights organization in Colombia, said they supported 573 Venezuelan women victims of sexual violence in their clinics—a 92% increase compared to 2018. The border regions of La Guajira in addition to Norte de Santander, where Cúcuta can be located, amassed the highest number of reported attacks.

What’s driving Venezuelans to cross the border hasn’t changed, said Lucía Hernández, a lawyer with the international organization Women’s Link Worldwide. These include fear of violence, financial strain, in addition to scant basic services due to the faltering economy. however border closures “doom migrants to irregular crossings.”

A treacherous path

More than 5,000 people are currently crossing in both directions through trochas daily, according to FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO monitoring human rights abuses within the border regions.

Since the border closed in March, homicides in Venezuelan border regions have increased by 28.7% compared to the same period in 2019 (April to June), the NGO reports. Disappearances have spiked by 83.3%, with the sharpest increases in Táchira, the border region closest to Cúcuta. The Fuller Project did not receive a response by Venezuelan border police about these increases.

“[Illegal armed] groups control the territory…They threaten women’s integrity, often with the goal of sex trafficking or forced labor,” said Javier Tarazona, director of FundaRedes. “Covid-19 has made the border context more oppressive, more violent.”

Many Venezuelan women have been lured into Colombia with fraudulent job offers, in addition to then forced into sex trafficking, according to a recent UNODC report. The number of foreigners trafficked into Colombia so far This kind of year was already 20% higher as of May than for all of 2019, the report said. Over 0% of the victims were Venezuelan women.

Colombia’s secretary of borders in addition to cooperation in Norte de Santander, Victor Bautista, says the government was aware of the risk of exposing civilians to more violence by closing the border, however the idea didn’t expect of which the closure could last so long.

“Those most vulnerable are more exposed to human trafficking, abuse, sexual exploitation,” he said.

When Ochoa finally made the idea to the Colombian side of the river, the idea was already dark. Her three children wouldn’t stop crying. She was too afraid to go to the police in addition to report what had happened to her. The men threatened to kill her if she told anyone, she said, in addition to she couldn’t accurately describe the men’s faces. Even if she could describe the men, she explains, she worried the authorities might deport her for being undocumented.

“I’m alone here,” she said. “I have no one to defend me.”

Lack of legal status deters many Venezuelan in addition to foreign women by seeking justice in Colombia. When women do report sexual violence in addition to crimes committed at the border, these crimes are rarely investigated in addition to prosecuted, according to local women’s organizations.

“I have no one to defend me.”

In some cases, when abuses take place by the river, police say they cannot investigate a crime outside of Colombian territory. Many women do not trust law enforcement institutions, because members of the police in addition to armed forces are often perpetrators themselves, several organizations in addition to migrant women told CNN.

“When migrant women are abused, who do they turn to?” asked Adriana Pérez, director of the Gender Observatory in Cúcuta. “Generally they’re told to go to the police…however what happens when the idea’s a police officer who can be abusing them? Or if the idea’s armed groups, under the knowledge of the police?”

“These are not acts of which are only being committed by illegal armed groups,” she added. “in addition to of which’s why the idea’s so complex to address them, because institutional agents seem to be complicit.”

The Cúcuta police told the Fuller Project they have only received one report of sexual violence since the pandemic border closure in mid-March, in addition to are not aware of any cases involving law enforcement agents. Colombian authorities said they are taking measures to strengthen standards for reporting in addition to identifying sexual in addition to gender-based crimes. the idea’s time to move by perception to formal complaints,” Bautista said.

Colombian military authorities did not respond to the Fuller Project’s request for comment.

Makeshift camps at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, on July 7 , 2020.
During the pandemic, lack of attention to migrant women’s needs has worsened in Colombia, according to Women’s Link Worldwide in addition to Corporación Mujer Denuncia y Muévete. As national health care resources got reshuffled to deal with the virus, many locally-run migrant shelters in addition to soup kitchens temporarily closed.
Migrant women say they have had more trouble accessing medical services, even when their cases were urgent in addition to vital—by maternal care to access to contraceptives. Meanwhile, shelters in addition to services reliant on foreign aid by major donors like the US scaled back some services to adhere to social distancing, according to UNHCR.

Since April, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) says the organization has helped 58 Venezuelan women in Cúcuta offering health care resources in addition to additional emergency services, while they have another 196 on the waitlist for individual psychological support.

There has been an increase in physical in addition to psychological violence happening within families—likely women living with their abusers—since April, as well as women being psychologically harassed in addition to threatened by their landlords, who were taking advantage of their inability to pay rent during the pandemic, according to the IRC.

Safe housing during Covid-19 can be one of the key concerns for migrant women. In Ochoa’s case, the friend who had agreed to host her in Cúcuta could no longer do so: she had been evicted.

With nowhere else to turn, Ochoa slept on the street with her three children. After three days, a Colombian woman who saw Ochoa begging on the street took them home in addition to allowed them to temporarily stay in a smaller room within the back of the house.

After three months of living with the Colombian woman in addition to her family, they asked her to leave, she says. She found a shack with plastic tarps as walls in a slum outside Cúcuta, crowded with additional Venezuelan migrants like her. The precarious construction has no power in addition to no plumbing. She struggles to pay the rent—around $40 per month.

The cost of turning back

Ochoa hasn’t been able to find a stable job since moving to Colombia seven months ago, she says. Instead, she roams the streets of Cúcuta begging for money with her children, worrying of which they could contract Covid-19. Most days she makes just enough to feed her children.

Venezuelans attempt to cross the Tachira river in Cucuta, Colombia.
In recent months, more than 100,000 Venezuelans who initially fled to Colombia in addition to additional countries within the region have returned to Venezuela through Colombian border points, driven back by the pandemic’s regional economic crisis, according to Colombian Migration authorities. however an estimated all 5 million or more Venezuelans remain outside of the country, according to UNHCR, in what has been described as the largest mass displacement since the Syrian War began in 2011.

Ochoa says of which despite the precarious situation in Colombia, she’s not going home to Venezuela any time soon. “At least here we have food in addition to a place to stay,” she said.

After Colombia lifted lockdown restrictions in early September, hundreds of Venezuelans began packing their bags again, ready to flee an even bleaker economic in addition to health crisis. The border, though, can be still officially closed.
Trochas are the only way through.
Marta Martinez can be a contributing reporter with The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on global issues of which affect women.

Top image: Getty/CNN Photo Illustration by Will Mullery

Source : Women fleeing Venezuela are being targeted for abuse amid pandemic border closures