By Philippa Hitchen
The international humanitarian agency Save the Children has raised the alarm about hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children who have fled across the border from Venezuela into Colombia.
In a press release on Tuesday, the agency said the spiral of political violence and economic insecurity in Venezuela has led to a sharp increase in malnutrition rates, with half a dozen children dying every week from food shortages.
Fleeing to escape starvation
To escape starvation, many families and unaccompanied children are fleeing into Colombia where they are at risk of kidnapping and exploitation from traffickers, criminal gangs or armed groups.
Tamara Lowe is head of humanitarian information and communication at Save the Children UK. She told Vatican News more about this unfolding humanitarian crisis
Lowe says that the rapidly deteriorating economic and political situation has caused hyperinflation and unemployment, as well as food and medical shortages.
She notes that those seeking refuge in Colombia are not only Venezuelans, but also Colombians themselves, who fled their own country during the civil war and are now being displaced again as they try and escape from the food and medical shortages.
Lowe says that of the 550.000 people who’ve fled into Colombia in the past year, 49 percent are children and most of them show signs of severe malnutrition. She says most families were unable to eat more than one meal a day, “if they were lucky”, since average wages are about twelve dollars a month.
Even after arriving in Colombia, Lowe says, it is “really difficult for people to improve their lives” as most cannot afford to buy a passport and so cross the border illegally. Since they have no legal rights for access to health or education, she adds, many people live on the streets, or in makeshift tarpaulin shelters. These people have little protection from the rain and live in areas prone to severe flooding, thus compounding the risk of disease.
Risk of disease and violence
Lowe explains that the regions where people are arriving are poverty stricken areas, where guerilla forces and armed groups are still active. Local inhabitants have had mixed reactions to the new arrivals, some reciprocating the help they received during the civil war, but others reporting rising xenophobia as people compete for jobs and services.
In particular, Save the Children is concerned about the plight of unaccompanied children crossing the border, where they are vulnerable to paramilitaries or armed groups, often connected to traffickers or criminal gangs.
Support for young migrants
Lowe adds that her organization is operating child friendly spaces where these young migrants can be protected. They are provided with psychological support, as well as the chance to play with other children and to receive basic education to help them “forget about what they’ve been through”.