Kids fleeing Venezuela left hungry, sick, abandoned
Cucuta, Colombia – On a recent humid evening in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, a Venezuelan woman wrapped her newborn daughter in a pale yellow blanket and left her with a note alongside a car parked near a stadium hosting a high school field day.
“I don’t have the means to take care of her,” she wrote on graph paper with a pink border of hearts, paw prints and flowers. “She is four days old and her name is Angela.”
But aside from the note, which said the mother was Venezuelan, there was nothing to identify the girl, who begins life in the midst of an exodus from Venezuela in which children are increasingly becoming the victims of abuse, malnutrition and even abandonment.
“It’s sad the mother took this decision,” said Maj. Amaury Aguilera, the officer overseeing the investigation. “To just simply, so coldly, abandon her.”
As Venezuelans flee their country’s collapsing economy and an autocratic government in rising numbers, a grim toll is becoming evident among the youngest arrivals in Colombia: Children are sleeping on the streets, suffering from hunger and untreated infections, and sometimes being lured into sex work.
More than 500 Venezuelan children have been taken into custody in Colombia, according to government documents. Police in Cucuta regularly turn at least one or two children a day over to the nation’s child welfare agency, where many are then placed in foster homes. At the city’s biggest soup kitchen, some parents have even tried to give their children away.
Rosalba Navarro, a sister with Cucuta’s Roman Catholic archdiocese, says mothers on several occasions have begged her: “Please take them. I don’t have anywhere to keep them.”
Over 1 million Venezuelans have fled across the porous border into Colombia in less than two years, many of them young children. A recent census found that of the estimated 442,500 Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia illegally, about a quarter are minors – 10 percent are 5 years old or younger.
“It’s the young who are coming to the country,” said Belen Villamizar, a lawyer working in Cucuta with Colombia’s child welfare agency. “They are the ones more likely to take the risk. And they come with children.”
The escalating influx is putting strain on an already stretched child welfare system in Colombia, where decades of war, poverty and social strife have rendered countless children the victims of abandonment, sex abuse and recruitment by illegal armed groups.
Many Venezuelans have made long journeys by foot and bus when they reach Cucuta, a mountainous city where their homeland can easily be seen from its hilltops. They often have little more than a dollar in their pockets, if that, and several mouths to feed.
On a recent evening, Cucuta police found 17-year-old Eliusmar Guerrero selling lollipops with her 18-month-old daughter. Guerrero said she and her husband had been unable to pay for their room in an apartment for the last three days. With no relatives in Colombia to help her care for the child, she said she was left with no choice but to go out in the streets hoping to sell a few candies with her baby in tow.
“We are going hungry here,” she said, balancing her smiling, seemingly oblivious daughter on one hip before the glare of a flashing police light.
As officers transported Guerrero and her daughter to Cucuta’s child welfare offices, she embraced her daughter and began to weep.
“I’m afraid they’ll take her from me,” she said.
In contrast to the United States, where more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents at the border with Mexico under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, Colombian officials say they are trying to keep newly arrived migrant families together.
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