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From Crisis to Crisis: Why Some Venezuelan Refugees are Heading Home

After fleeing Venezuela’s humanitarian catastrophe and seeking refuge in Ecuador, Roselin plans to return to Venezuela as coronavirus ravages the region.

“When the COVID-19 situation started, I never heard from my boss again. They stopped work, they never called us, they never texted us,” says Roselin Garcés, 31, a Venezuelan refugee in Ecuador.

Without a job, Roselin struggled to afford the basics.

“At a point, we didn’t have money, not even to buy something to eat. … I know it’s a global crisis, but fear was one of the things that affected me the most.”

Ecuador has the second-highest COVID-19 infection rate in the region after Brazil, and the highest death rate. According to official data, 3,600 people in Ecuador have died from the virus as of June 9, but a government official has said the figure is low due to a lack of testingAn analysis by The New York Times suggests that Ecuador’s death toll is 15 times higher than government numbers report.

News reports include stories of overflowing hospitals and dead bodies piling up on the streets, particularly in Guayaquil, home to 70 percent of the country’s COVID-19 cases, and where Roselin was living and working.

“The situation in Guayaquil was horrible,” Roselin says. “I did not sleep. I thought that I would not see my daughter anymore, that I would not be able to get out of there.”

Roselin’s 13-year-old daughter Anarela was staying with relatives in Quito, the country’s capital. She decided to sell her belongings and make the journey to be reunited with her daughter. Together with a group of other migrants, Roselin walked the 250 miles from Guayaquil to Quito. The group often stopped at gas stations to shower or sleep and relied on support from strangers along the way.

When the COVID-19 situation started, I never heard from my boss again. They stopped work, they never called us, they never texted us.

Roselin Garcés

Roselin stands with other migrants at a shelter in Quito, Ecuador. Photos: Ana Buitrón

Roselin fled Venezuela two years ago due to political turmoil and the subsequent economic crisis. Since 2016, approximately 5 million refugees and migrants have fled the country, with the majority escaping to Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador.

Like many other migrants, Roselin left her family behind, including her husband and two other children. She has been sending money from Ecuador to support them but stopped when she lost her job.

“What we need is a steady income. We need to support our families in Venezuela, and here we’re doing nothing,” Roselin says from the shelter in Quito where she is quarantining with Anarela and other migrants. “That’s why we want to leave, because here we are staying with our arms crossed.”

Anarela, who does not have friends in Ecuador, is happy to be reunited with her mom.

“She is my mom, and she is everything,” Anarela says. “When she cries, I cry, and if she is fine I am fine, therefore, I like to be with her, because wherever she is, I am, and if she is fine I am fine as well.”

Roselin walked 250 miles from Guayaquil to Quito in Ecuador to be reunited with her daughter, Anarela. Photo: Ana Buitrón

They are awaiting an evacuation flight to Venezuela. She and Anarela aren’t the only ones fleeing from one crisis to another. Reports from border crossings indicate that large groups of Venezuelans are returning to the country on foot.

But returning may not solve their economic concerns or guarantee safety. “For people returning, their humanitarian needs are not guaranteed, both during their journey as well as in Venezuela,” says Daniel Almeida, CARE’s Regional Advocacy Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean.

A massive return of migrants and refugees may exacerbate an already dire situation. Over 7 million people have humanitarian needs in Venezuela, where malnutrition is rampant due to extreme food shortages and public services are crumbling. The country’s health system lacks staff, medicine, equipment, and electricity.

Across the region, Venezuelan migrants face serious challenges without proper access to healthcare or other services due to their migratory status. Many, like Roselin, rely on the informal economy for livelihoods and are at risk of food shortages due to the lockdown.

In Ecuador, CARE is distributing cash, food, medicine and other supplies to marginalized groups including Venezuelan refugees and migrants, sex workers, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

“We’re concerned that violence against women and girls, and femicide, will increase exponentially — and governments have limited capacities to respond,” Daniel says. In response, CARE has created a hotline to provide social, legal, and psychosocial support to people experiencing gender-based violence.

He says the risks to women and girls during this crisis are far-reaching, as they will likely be caregivers to infected family and community members and may, in turn, have challenges accessing health services if needed.

Roselin, Anarela and other Venezuelan refugees await news of a humanitarian flight that will take them home. For now, all such flights have been suspended. Photo: Ana Buitrón

Meanwhile, more than three weeks into their quarantine in Quito, Roselin and Anarela anxiously await a call from the Venezuelan embassy regarding their evacuation flight.

“I will not have true [peace] until I am in Venezuela,” Roselin says.

Days after speaking with CARE, Venezuela suspended evacuation flights after some returnees tested positive for COVID-19. Now, Roselin, Anarela, and many other migrants have no choice but to stay in Ecuador.

COVID-19 poses an unprecedented threat to the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women and girls like Roselin and Anarela.

See other women’s stories and Fight With CARE by signing the petition to prioritize the most vulnerable in a global COVID-19 response.

Video shot by Estefanía Bravo.

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