Tiny bridge at the centre of the Venezuelan refugee crisis
Hundreds of desperate people who traveled days from Venezuela were prevented from passing the checkpoint near the southwestern town of Ipiales by a regulation set by Ecuadorâs President Lenin Moreno that kicked in this weekend. Tamara Lindstrom reports.
The SimÃ³n BolÃvar International Bridge has become a vital crossing for refugees. Picture: Google MapsSource:Supplied
ITâS only 300m long and 7m wide, but a small bridge used by locals to cross the border for their shopping or visit friends and relatives has become a focal point in a crisis which is gripping the world.
Crossing the Rio TÃ¡chira river in the eastern Andes, the SimÃ³n BolÃvar International Bridge is being clogged daily with thousands of refugees, who say they will die if they stay in their motherland.
They are trying to flee from Venezuela â" a country which has essentially ground to a standstill as murderous gangs roams the streets and devastating food and medical shortages leave millions of residents fighting to survive.
To make matters even worse, the country has just been hit by its most powerful earthquake in more than a century.
The bridge connects the embattled socialist nation with relatively stable Colombia and the differences between the two towns on either side are stark.
Residents in Villa del Rosario in Colombia sometimes used to cross over to San Antonio del TÃ¡chira on the other side to visit shops and friends, but now the traffic is all one-way â" as millions of Venezuelans clamour to escape their homeland which has descended into an economic basket case.
President NicolÃ¡s Maduro blames the countryâs woes on âimperialistsâ in the United States and Europe for waging âeconomic warâ. However, critics say itâs a simple case of economic mismanagement.
The United Nations says more than 2.3 million Venezuelans have already fled the country. Thatâs more than 7 per cent of the countryâs entire population â" making it one of the largest mass migrations in Latin Americaâs history.
More than a million of those desperate refugees have arrived in Colombia in the past 18 months and many of them have resorted to using the tiny SimÃ³n BolÃvar International Bridge as their escape route.
A constant stream of refugees are crossing over the bridge. P icture: Marco Barbesta/ Google ReviewsSource:Supplied
Some of those passing through the clogged checkpoint, left warnings on Google reviews â" saying the bridge has become âoverwhelming, hot and hellishâ in recent months as tens of thousands of refugees flee.
Many said to avoid it all costs as border guards struggle to contend with the constant exodus of poverty-stricken refugees, however some crossing the border were sympathetic with the overworked staff.
âHere even border guards looked compassionate and kind,â said one traveller who recently crossed the bridge âMust be tough having such spectacle under your very eyes every day.â
Many of those escaping are using Colombia as a bridge to Ecuador and Peru, where some believe they will have better luck finding jobs and applying for asylum.
More than a half million Venezuelans have entered Ecuador since January, prompting officials to declare a state of emergency. In Peru, officials re corded more than 5000 Venezuelan entries on a recent single day.
Now, both countries have announced dramatic rule changes which could see thousands of refugees stranded. Both revealed they would allow entry only to people with valid passports.
Venezuelans were previously able to enter using only paper ID cards. About half of those who have made the journey so far didnât have passports.
Devastating food and medical shortages have forced millions to flee. Picture: Schneyder Mendoza / AFPSource:AFP
But obtaining a passport in Venezuela is close to impossible. The country is struggling with shortages of paper and ink â" so hardly any passports are printed, let alone issued.
The situation is becoming increasingly dire in the poverty-stricken country which â" d espite having the largest proven oil reserves in the world â" has millions of residents dying from a lack of medicine.
Four in five Venezuelans now live in poverty and millions have to queue for hours every day to get their hands on basic food rations as inflation reaches terrifying levels.
Inflation now sits at 82,766 per cent â" similar to that in Germany in 1923 or Zimbabwe in the late 2000s â" and experts fear it could exceed 1 million per cent by the end of this year.
The new border rules drew an immediate rebuke from authorities in Colombia.
Though his own country already imposed its own often ignored entry requirements for Venezuelans, Colombia Migration Director Christian Kruger warned that the new passport rule in neighbouring Ecuador could create a bottleneck at the Rumichaca International Bridge connecting the two countries.
Officials estimate over 4000 Venezuelans crossed from Colombia into Ecuador each day over the bridge earlier this mo nth.
âWe are immensely worried about the consequences this might present,â he said.
âThe exodus of Venezuelans from the country is one of Latin Americaâs largest mass-population movements in history,â William Spindler, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said earlier this month.
Colombia began requiring Venezuelans to present a passport or border card allowing for short trips into the nation earlier this year. But thousands still sneak in through hundreds of illegal entry points along the 2200km border with Venezuela.
Inflation is rocketing to terrifying levels in Venzuela. Picture: AP/Ariana CubillosSource:AP
Colombian officials recently agreed to provide legal status to 442,000 who participated in a registry for migrants without valid do cuments.
A border crossing from Venezuela into the Brazilian city of Pacaraima was closed earlier this month after a judge ruled it should be shuttered until a program to relocate Venezuelan refugees could keep pace with the hundreds arriving each day.
That decision was later reversed by an appellate court. Peruvian Interior Minister Mauro Medina said the passport requirement was needed to ensure an orderly migration.
âIf something happens to them, we have a way to identify them,â he said. âAlso, some bad apples â" who donât represent the majority, who are decent people â" filter in and police should have the adequate tools to identify them.â
Peruvian migration officials estimate between 17,000 and 25,000 Venezuelans are now in southern Ecuador with the intention of heading on to Peru, Chile or Argentina.
They will have until August 25 to enter without a passport.
Mr Kruger said the new passport rule is unlikely to stem the tide of mig rants and called on Ecuador and other nations to work together on dealing with the crisis in crafting commonsense policies.
âRequiring a passport isnât going to stop this migration,â Mr Kruger said. âThis isnât a migration of people leaving their country just because they want to. Theyâre leaving because they need to.â
â" With wiresSource: Google News Colombia | Netizen 24 Colombia