National Geographic For Venezuelan Refugees, This Bridge Connects Past and Present

The Simón Bolívar bridge, which connects Venezuela and Colombia, has become the epicenter of this massive migration.

Thousands of Venezuelan refugees walk across Simón Bolívar bridge into Cúcuta, Colombia, each day.
Photograph by Greg Kahn

The Simón Bolívar bridge, connecting the Colombian city of Cúcuta with the Venezuelan city of San Antonio, is packed with people all day long.

Soon after the border opens in the early hours of the morning, thousands cross by foot from Venezuela to Colombia. Many are ready to leave everything behind, planning not to return to their home country. Some expect to stay in Colombia and others are moving through to different destinations. Another group crosses the bridge to shop for basic items. The number of daily pedestrians varies, but it’s estimated that about 35,000 people are now crossing the bridge every day.

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Left: Jose Barrios, 27, is forced to beg for money and food on the streets of Cúcuta with his wife, Laura, and their two daughters.

Right: Jesus Breseño, 20, waits for the next leg of his trip, which will eventually take him to Bogotá. Breseño explains the reasons he decided to leave Venezuela: “No food, no money, no work.”

Photograph by Greg Kahn

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A policeman stands in a park next to the Bogotá Canal in Cúcuta, Colombia, on the day of a police raid. Several trucks full of Venezuelans without required immigration documents were deported.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

Although the region has experienced multiple population movements, this exodus is thought by some to be Latin America’s worst-ever migration crisis. Over the last four years, amid a long and dire economic downfall, Venezuela has seen the impoverishment of its citizens and a resulting mass exodus. The latest re-election of President Nicolás Maduro to a second term hasn’t helped the already tenuous situation, igniting a simmering desire of many Venezuelans to leave the struggling nation. Hyperinflation of the economy, hospitals without supplies, and the rampant spread of hunger have fueled their flight.

   

RILEY D. CHAMPINE, NG STAFF

TREE COVER DATA: UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND;

GLOBAL ROADS, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

This mass migration, however, started even earlier, when now-deceased leader Hugo Chavez took office in 1999. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in the last 20 years. More than one million Venezuelans have moved to Colombia since 2017, according to the Red Cross. And that number covers only those who passed through approved checkpoints.

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At a spot known for prostitution in Cúcuta, Colombia, police round up Venezuelans who do not have required immigration documentation.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

Photographer Greg Kahn recently spent time documenting the Venezuelan refugee crisis in the border town of Cúcuta—now the epicenter of this migration.

He’s encountered people from all walks of life, including those who had jobs in Venezuela that would typically pay well. Still, these people, including a former mayor and a university professor, were forced to leave their country. “Even as professionals they didn’t make enough money to survive,” he says. “Inflation eats up the salary they make.”

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Left: Albeiro Romero, 16, has been living in Simón Bolívar Park in Cúcuta, Colombia, for three months.

Right: Oriana Brito, 20, from Caracas, Venezuela, has been sleeping on the streets in Cúcuta for more than six months. She said despite the hardships, she and her husband are better off than they were under President Maduro.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

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Venezuelans walk across Simón Bolívar bridge into Cúcuta, Colombia. Some of the thousands of refugees who cross the border every day have been traveling for months, having sold nearly all their belongings before their journey.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

Crossing the border by foot at spots like the Simón Bolívar bridge is the only option for those unable to pay for a plane ticket. Under the blazing sun, Venezuelan travelers pass into Colombia, juggling overstuffed suitcases and backpacks. Some travel alone, while others walk with family, carrying their children. The route takes refugees through a sea of people, from gold traders who buy desperate Venezuelans’ precious metals to vendors selling one-way tickets to Peru, Chile, and Ecuador.

Many queuing to stamp their passports will only stay in Cúcuta temporarily. They have plans to go to other countries and were lucky enough to save sufficient money for bus tickets. Others don’t cross with the same fortune. Some run out of money before completing their planned trip and get stuck in the city.

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A statue of Simón Bolívar towers over visitors in a Cúcuta park.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

Life is difficult for Venezuelan migrants who have to stay in Cúcuta.

Yamil Rojas says he has been sleeping on cardboard outside a shelter in the city for two weeks. His final destination is Peru, where he has a job offer, but he ran out of money three days after crossing the border.

Rojas, a 32-year-old from the Venezuelan town of Valencia, is unable to find work in Cúcuta and spends most of his days trying to collect pesos by cleaning windshields and selling sweets. “I hope to collect enough money for a bus ticket,” he says. “I can’t go back. My family is counting on me to send them money.”

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Maria Castillo crossed into Cúcuta, Colombia, three days before giving birth to her son, Eudarderson. With scarce resources and medicine, many Venezuelans make the difficult choice to leave their home to give birth in other countries.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

Kahn also visited a maternity hospital in the town. There, he met Maria Castillo, a Venezuelan woman who had just given birth to a baby boy. The young woman crossed the border three days before going into labor and told Khan she didn’t want to have her child in Venezuela, since many hospitals don’t have equipment or supplies.

She’s part of a widespread departure of pregnant Venezuelan women who flee for fear of losing their lives during labor. Their fear is not unfounded—maternal mortality increased 65 percent in 2016, according to the Venezuelan Ministry of Health.

The migration crisis has prompted the Colombian government to allocate more than $3.5 million (U.S.) for health services to migrants from bordering countries, and Cúcuta locals are also doing their part. Fabiola Ruiz manages a soup kitchen near the border. The site was created in mid-2017 to feed weary Venezuelans and has grown drastically since its start. “We passed from serving 1,000 meals to 3,000 in less than a year,” said Ruiz.

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Left: Police officer Jeo Vanny Tamara watches from a distance as thousands of Venezuelans cross Simón Bolívar bridge to reach Colombia. While the crossing on top of the bridge is relatively peaceful, the passage below is more dangerous—and sometimes used as an avenue for drugs and contraband.

Right: Yoskarly Patiño, 18, withdrew from school and fled with his mother and sister to Cúcuta, Colombia. He now lives in Simón Bolívar Park. Like many other Venezuelans, he and his family don’t have the required documents to stay in Colombia and have to evade immigration officials and police to avoid being brought back to Venezuela.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

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Moises Garcia, from Caracas, Venezuela, has been living in Cúcuta for more than a year. He was able to reunite with his wife and daughter but worries about family members who are still in Venezuela.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

Not all Colombians have been so open. In Cúcuta, some locals worry about Venezuelans exploiting their community’s resources. Many want the border to be shut down, and former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos initiated a massive militarization of the border and launched an effort to keep migrants off Cúcuta’s streets. His administration also removed hundreds of migrants who crossed the border without required documentation.

“Talking with Venezuelans… one can tell they don’t feel welcome,” Kahn says.

“As soon as they hear my accent, they cross the street,” says 19-year-old Alfonso Tapisquen. Every night, he considers returning home.

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Police patrol a busy street in Cúcuta, Colombia. Officials often stop Venezuelans to search for contraband and request their immigration documents.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

He isn’t the only Venezuelan in Cúcuta struggling with his decision. Kahn says every migrant he met in the town had one thing in common: They weren’t happy to be in Colombia, but they didn’t have a chance in Venezuela.

Kahn explains the predicament of those who had crossed the border, saying, “It wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity.”

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A statue of Simón Bolívar stands atop a hill overlooking the city of Cúcuta, Colombia. The statue commemorates the battle of Cúcuta, where Bolívar defeated the ruling Spanish army before driving them out of his homeland of Venezuela.

Photograph by Greg Kahn

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