The north coast of Colombia as the first port of call for many refugees
Since President Maduro took office in 2013, 3.6 million people, which is roughly equivalent to the population of Berlin, have fled Venezuela. Many of the refugees have found shelter in La Guajira, a department in northern Colombia right on the border with Venezuela. La Guajira is one of the poorest regions in the country, without adequate food, drinking water or medical care.
To contain COVID‑19, Colombia’s government imposed one of the harshest and longest lockdowns in the world. As a result, sources of income were wiped out and government funds to support Venezuelans were slashed. This has further exacerbated an already strained situation for many of the refugees. Those who were able to earn micro-incomes in the informal sector, for instance by selling coffee or sweets on the street, lost these sources of income. Crime, hunger, malnutrition and disease also ensued.
Reliable support from Malteser International despite obstacles owing to COVID‑19
Malteser International has worked to support refugees in the departments of La Guajira and Magdalena since 2018, providing care for malnourished children, newborns and pregnant women, as well as assisting with material donations. In addition, medical examinations are being carried out and psychological counselling provided while medicines are being distributed. The Federal Foreign Office supports Malteser International’s work with a total of 2.5 million euro.
The general desperation is palpable, says Jelena Kaifenheim, who oversees the project at Malteser International. She also notes that hardly any private donations are being received for the refugees because media coverage of the crisis is scant. Single mothers are particularly close to her heart. They are under enormous pressure in the current situation, she adds, because it has become even more difficult from them to care for their children.
Several aid organisations have withdrawn from the region due to increasingly difficult working conditions. As a result, Malteser International is now caring for even more Venezuelan pregnant women and newborns, who had previously been looked after by other aid organisations. Malteser International also offers its medical services in a mobile capacity in compliance with hygiene measures relating to COVID‑19. For example, more than 5000 examinations were performed between January and August 2020 alone. Federal Foreign Office funding was further increased following the outbreak of the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Specific moments are particularly touching and illustrate the importance of Malteser International’s work to support people in the region. On 25 September 2020, Zuleidys’ neighbours ran to the Malteser International office asking for help. Zuleidys, a Venezuelan woman, was in labour at her mother’s home. Malteser International’s mobile medical team in Santa Marta moved out and helped Zuleidys to give birth to her son Thiannys safely. Afterwards, the team also attended to the newborn’s postnatal care.
This makes Thiannys one of more than 90 children to receive postnatal medical care from Malteser International in 2020, while Zuleidys was one of over 500 pregnant women to be assisted in childbirth. Leynis Pachero, one of the women who received assistance, is full of hope and gratitude. “Life in Colombia isn’t easy”, she says, “but it gets better each day”.