In the northeast corner of Colombia, a few miles from the Venezuelan border, rows of khaki-colored tents rise from the desert sand. Filled with Venezuelans escaping economic disaster back home, the tents make up Colombia’s first refugee camp near the border.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, which has operated the facility since opening it in March, calls it an “integrated assistance center” rather than a traditional refugee camp. The site provides a temporary lifeline for weary Venezuelans trying to escape from hyperinflation, nationwide power outages, and critical shortages of food and medicine.
Among them is Jesús Lozano, 44, a Venezuelan construction worker who has just arrived after spending weeks sleeping outdoors in the nearby Colombian town of Maicao.
“Thank God I’m now here!” Lozano said while slumping in a plastic chair just inside the camp’s gate.
Lozano is among the 3.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the country in recent years, including 2.7 million since 2015, according to the U.N. More than 1 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees have resettled in neighboring Colombia.
Colombian officials have provided temporary shelters for Venezuelans before but have tried to avoid building formal refugee camps. Instead, they encourage Venezuelan newcomers to stay with friends or relatives already living in Colombia or to move on to other countries.
But Maicao is located on the wind-swept La Guajira desert, in one of the poorest regions of Colombia, and sits far away from major cities like Bogotá, Medellín or Cali. Lacking contacts or money for bus fare to go farther inland, many refugees end up stranded in Maicao.
The town of about 100,000 is now home to 13 informal migrant settlements for Venezuelans, while the most destitute sleep outdoors on sidewalks. They have put an enormous strain on Maicao’s few homeless shelters and health clinics. That prompted town officials to push the Colombian government to authorize the building of the migrant reception center, said Marco Rotunno, a U.N. official at the Maicao facility.
“The situation in Maicao is terrible,” Rotunno said. “That’s why we are providing temporary accommodation with all the basic services.”
In addition, 13 U.N.-run shelters have been set up along Brazil’s isolated northern border with Venezuela that can temporarily house up to 6,000 refugees, according to Olga Sarrado, a U.N. press officer.
Besides tents, the Maicao camp is home to a Red Cross clinic and a cafeteria. Experts provide psychological counseling and legal advice. The camp takes in the most vulnerable refugees, especially families with young children, many of whom arrive underweight.
At the camp’s day care center, many of the kids muse aloud about the foods they crave, like chocolate cake and pizza. Some fly kites made out of plastic trash bags. Others focus on recovering their strength. They include Gusmary Añez, her husband and four children, who had been sleeping outdoors in Maicao.
“Living in the streets you see a lot of ugly things, like people on the weekends fighting with knives,” Añez says. “Several times we were robbed while sleeping.”
They now live in one of 60 tents at the camp that house more than 300 Venezuelans. She said her kids were so relieved upon reaching the facility that they slept for three straight days.
Refugees are allowed to stay here for just a month, but even this short respite can be a lifeline, says Eric Godoy, who had been living on the streets of Maicao with his wife and 1-year-old daughter.
Godoy works at an outdoor market in Maicao and says he can now save his money because he doesn’t pay for food at the U.N. camp. After 30 days, he thinks he’ll have enough to rent a small room in Maicao.
As he speaks, workers pound in stakes to erect more tents. Hundreds of refugees are on the waiting list to move in, so officials are planning to double the size of the camp.
The scene recalls the grim images of refugee camps that sprang up in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras amid civil wars that plagued Central America in the 1980s. Millions of Colombians were also displaced by their country’s more than 50-year-long civil conflict.
Although Venezuelan security forces have violently suppressed anti-government protests, war has not broken out in Venezuela.
But Rotunno points out that the refugees in Maicao fled from a different kind of hell: a country of chronic food shortages and a collapsed health system.
“There is no war — but a lot of nightmares for the people,” he said.