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Venezuelan Migrants Return Home Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

Around 5 million people have left Venezuela over the last few years. The reason was mostly simple. They needed work. But when the pandemic came, some of them lost their jobs, so now thousands are trying to get back. They are driving cars and riding buses. They are walking. And they are running into roadblocks on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, which is where John Otis is.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The Colombian frontier town of Villa del Rosario is the main crossing point into Venezuela. About 100,000 Venezuelan migrants have already returned to their country since the pandemic began, and more arrive at the border trying to make the journey every day, sunburned, hungry and exhausted.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD WHINING)

OTIS: They include Jackson Alvarado, his wife and their 6-month-old son. They spent the past two years in Peru, where Alvarado built furniture. His story is common among the returnees. After he lost his job in May, his family was kicked out of their apartment, and they headed back to Venezuela. They had to walk almost the whole way because few public buses were running during the lockdown.

JACKSON ALVARADO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "It took 2 1/2 months," Alvarado says. "It was really tough."

But they've found no relief here on the border, which is closed except for a trickle of returnees who are allowed to cross every few days. The result is a bottleneck of desperate Venezuelans who have little food and nowhere to sleep. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Colombian authorities have closed shelters and soup kitchens that used to help these migrants, but this appears to have made health conditions even worse.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: As they wait for permission to cross into Venezuela, the migrants have crowded into a cramped and filthy outdoor camp of their own making. Colombia blames Venezuela for the congestion, but Venezuelan officials say that due to shortages of food and medicine, they can only handle about 1,000 returnees per week. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's authoritarian president, says the returnees are spreading coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: In a recent speech, Maduro even claimed that the Colombian government was intentionally sending migrants sick with COVID-19 into his country. Colombian officials called the accusation ludicrous.

JOZEF MERKX: So it is, indeed, a very chaotic situation.

OTIS: That's Jozef Merkx, who heads the U.N. refugee agency in Colombia. The agency helps operate a government health center here where migrants receive food and shelter and are tested for COVID-19 before they are allowed to return to Venezuela.

MERKX: We already - in that center alone in the last few weeks, we have attended more than 8,000 people, but much more needs to be done.

OTIS: Indeed, the health center is not big enough to take in all the migrants massing on the border.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: When a bus arrives to bring some of them to the health center, people scramble to climb on board.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Shouting in non-English language).

OTIS: But most of the migrants are left behind. Among the stragglers is Erickson Escobar. He lost his construction job in Peru and is now trying to get home.

ERICKSON ESCOBAR: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: He says he's been camping out on the border for the past 11 days waiting to cross. As his wife stirs a pot of black beans over an open fire, Escobar complains that they were soaked last night in a downpour.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANCHES SNAPPING)

OTIS: Anticipating another rainy night, he starts gathering tree branches and sheets of plastic to build a flimsy shelter.

ESCOBAR: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "This is a disaster," Escobar says. "We never thought it would be like this on the border."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Villa del Rosario, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.