Targeted for abuse: With borders closed, women fleeing Venezuela face additional threats


If Gabriela Ochoa had identified what would occur to her down by the Táchira River that divides Venezuela and Colombia, she by no means would have crossed.

But her household was determined.

With authorities backed meals rising scarcer and costlier, Ochoa did not even hassle looking for authorities support. Instead, after a brief stint residing together with her mom, with whom she had a troubled relationship, she set her sights on shifting to Colombia, the place folks suggested she may discover work and a good friend had supplied to host her.

Ochoa and her youngsters made it to the border bridge in early April, after hours of hitchhiking and strolling from her hometown, the coastal metropolis of Puerto Cabello — greater than 450 miles (730 km) from the border. But the Colombian authorities had already closed all checkpoints to keep away from the unfold of the novel coronavirus in mid-March.

The solely possibility left for Ochoa to make it throughout to Cúcuta was to cross by one of many almost 80 muddy, crime-ridden trochas within the Cúcuta space — casual routes throughout the Táchira river — managed by prison gangs, guerrillas and paramilitary teams, she stated.

On the primary day, Ochoa stated she begged folks on their approach to the trocha to assist her cross, with no luck. That evening, she slept on the road together with her youngsters, their stomachs roaring with starvation. By the top of the second day, because the sky darkened, a younger man lastly supplied to assist her, she stated.

As they inched nearer to the water, a bunch of males emerged from the bushes, their heads lined by hoodies.

“They had guns, knives, all kinds of things,” Ochoa recalled. The males grabbed her youngsters and threatened to take them away if she did not pay them to cross.

“I thought they were going to kill me and the children,” she stated. In tears, Ochoa informed them she did not have any cash and begged them to allow them to throughout the river. The males dragged her behind a bush and raped her.

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

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

Beginning in mid-March, as Covid-19 an infection charges grew exponentially in Latin America, the majority of nations within the area closed their borders to curb the unfold of the virus. But such measures have put girls at extra danger, in accordance with human rights teams, authorities officers and researchers.
For years, Colombia has acquired the majority of determined Venezuelans who cross the border to neighboring nations searching for meals, medication and shelter. Its authorities has supplied medical support, education and a few job alternatives to fleeing Venezuelans. But the pandemic’s border closure left no protected manner for these migrants to cross the border, exposing extra girls to sexual abuse, kidnapping, trafficking and homicide that’s endemic alongside casual routes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, humanitarian organizations say there was a marked improve in gender-based violence alongside the border areas. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) experiences a 7% improve within the variety of girls staying of their three shelters in Cúcuta dedicated to girls victims of sexual violence, trafficking and single moms, in comparison with the identical interval in 2019 (from April to August). Of the 257 girls that UNHCR supported, the company says almost half had skilled gender-based violence.

But the rise in sexual and gender-based violence on the Colombia-Venezuela border predates the pandemic. In 2019, Profamilia, one of many principal sexual and reproductive rights group in Colombia, stated they supported 573 Venezuelan girls victims of sexual violence of their clinics—a 92% improve in comparison with 2018. The border areas of La Guajira and Norte de Santander, the place Cúcuta is situated, amassed the best variety of reported assaults.

What’s driving Venezuelans to cross the border hasn’t modified, stated Lucía Hernández, a lawyer with the worldwide group Women’s Link Worldwide. These embrace concern of violence, monetary pressure, and scant primary companies as a result of faltering economic system. But border closures “doom migrants to irregular crossings.”

A treacherous path

More than 5,000 persons are at present crossing in each instructions by trochas day by day, in accordance with FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO monitoring human rights abuses within the border areas.

Since the border closed in March, homicides in Venezuelan border areas have elevated by 28.7% in comparison with the identical interval in 2019 (April to June), the NGO experiences. Disappearances have spiked by 83.3%, with the sharpest will increase in Táchira, the border area closest to Cúcuta. The Fuller Project didn’t obtain a response from Venezuelan border police about these will increase.

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

Many Venezuelan girls have been lured into Colombia with fraudulent job presents, after which pressured into intercourse trafficking, in accordance with a current UNODC report. The variety of foreigners trafficked into Colombia to date this 12 months was already 20% increased as of May than for all of 2019, the report stated. Over 90% of the victims had been Venezuelan girls.

Colombia’s secretary of borders and cooperation in Norte de Santander, Victor Bautista, says the federal government was conscious of the danger of exposing civilians to extra violence by closing the border, nevertheless it did not count on that the closure would final so lengthy.

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

When Ochoa lastly made it to the Colombian facet of the river, it was already darkish. Her three youngsters would not cease crying. She was too afraid to go to the police and report what had occurred to her. The males threatened to kill her if she informed anybody, she stated, and she or he could not precisely describe the lads’s faces. Even if she may describe the lads, she explains, she frightened the authorities may deport her for being undocumented.

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

Lack of authorized standing deters many Venezuelan and overseas girls from looking for justice in Colombia. When girls do report sexual violence and crimes dedicated on the border, these crimes are not often investigated and prosecuted, in accordance with native girls’s organizations.

“I have no one to defend me.”

In some circumstances, when abuses happen by the river, police say they can not examine a criminal offense exterior of Colombian territory. Many girls don’t belief regulation enforcement establishments, as a result of members of the police and armed forces are sometimes perpetrators themselves, a number of organizations and migrant girls informed CNN.

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

“These are not acts that are only being committed by illegal armed groups,” she added. “And that’s why it’s so complex to address them, because institutional agents seem to be complicit.”

The Cúcuta police informed the Fuller Project they’ve solely acquired one report of sexual violence because the pandemic border closure in mid-March, and will not be conscious of any circumstances involving regulation enforcement brokers. Colombian authorities stated they’re taking measures to strengthen requirements for reporting and figuring out sexual and gender-based crimes. It’s time to maneuver from notion to formal complaints,” Bautista said.

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

During the pandemic, lack of attention to migrant women’s needs has worsened in Colombia, according to Women’s Link Worldwide and Corporación Mujer Denuncia y Muévete. As national health care resources got reshuffled to deal with the virus, many locally-run migrant shelters and soup kitchens temporarily closed.
Migrant girls say they’ve had extra bother accessing medical companies, even when their circumstances had been pressing and important—from maternal care to entry to contraceptives. Meanwhile, shelters and companies reliant on overseas support from 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 and other emergency services, while they have another 196 on the waitlist for individual psychological support.

There has been an increase in physical and psychological violence happening within families—likely women living with their abusers—since April, as well as women being psychologically harassed and 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 is 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 and allowed them to temporarily stay in a small room in the back of the house.

After three months of living with the Colombian woman and 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 other Venezuelan migrants like her. The precarious construction has no power and 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 that 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 current months, more than 100,000 Venezuelans who initially fled to Colombia and other countries in the region have returned to Venezuela through Colombian border points, driven back by the pandemic’s regional economic crisis, according to Colombian Migration authorities. But an estimated 5 million or extra Venezuelans stay exterior of the nation, in accordance with UNHCR, in what has been described because the largest mass displacement because the Syrian War started in 2011.

Ochoa says that regardless of the precarious state of affairs in Colombia, she’s not going house to Venezuela any time quickly. “At least right here now we have meals and a spot to remain,” 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 and health crisis. The border, though, is still officially closed.
Trochas are the only way through.
Marta Martinez is a contributing reporter with The Fuller Project, a worldwide nonprofit newsroom reporting on international points that have an effect on girls.

Top picture: Getty/CNN Photo Illustration by Will Mullery


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