PUERTO ASIS, Colombia – Yony Jose Carrero took three days to cover the 1,050-kilometer (650-mile) distance between his hometown of El Vigia, Venezuela, and this small city in the remote southwestern Colombian province of Putumayo, having made his way there with his wife, their three children, his mother-in-law and a broken leg.
He is one of around 4,000 Venezuelans (according to United Nations estimates) who live in Putumayo, a jungle province whose hundreds of irregular migrant routes to Ecuador make it a place of transit for many.
“What I had was a motorcycle, and with the accident the (authorities) took it away and I lost it. I spent a week or so with tubes inside me; I was practically more dead than alive,” Carrero told EFE in a common room of a house where he and his family live on the outskirts of Puerto Asis.
Many of Carrero’s countrymen are just passing through, but that city of 60,000 people – the birth place of the parents of his wife, Ana Lucia Quinchoa – is the family’s final destination.
Aged 28 with a scar on his left cheek, a shiny gold tooth and an iron rod inserted into a leg with pus oozing out at the ankle, Carrero embarked with his family on the long journey via highway from El Vigia (northwestern state of Merida) to the Colombian border town of Puerto Santander and then on to Cucuta and Bogota before finally arriving at a house shared by 14 Venezuelans in Puerto Asis.
Eight adults and six children who fled the severe, years-long economic crisis in their homeland have taken up residence there and are scraping out a living as best they can.
The most fortunate have jobs, while the majority sell sweets on the street and the most destitute beg for money at traffic lights.
Carrero and his family, including the couple’s infant daughter, have lived just over a month in a room measuring five by five meters (16 by 16 feet) with a mattress lying on the floor, a blue blanket with an image of a panda bear, a cot, a bathroom with no door and a crib. Sharing the room is a pregnant woman (who says she is 26) and her infant son.
The Carrero family, however, can consider themselves fortunate because Quinchoa works as a waitress and her income is sufficient to cover the cost of rent, food and the children’s needs.
“You can work here and pay for food and pay for diapers, but back there (in Venezuela) it’s inconceivable. Even if I’d worked five jobs, it wouldn’t have been enough even for food,” Quinchoa said.
Carrero had eked out a living as a moto-taxi driver before his accident, but everything changed for the worse after he broke his leg, thus triggering the decision to emigrate.
Every member of the family is an undocumented migrant, as are roughly 70 percent of the Venezuelan exiles who have made their way to Colombia in recent years.
And around 60 percent of these arrivals are children, making the challenge of caring for this population even bigger. Authorities in Bogota, for example, estimate that between 10 percent and 15 percent of Venezuelan migrant children are malnourished, which causes them to be shorter than normal for their age.
“We’re especially seeing this phenomenon among these children. The majority start to suffer respiratory and diarrheal diseases,” said Paola Gustin, a nutritionist with the Bogota-based non-governmental organization Accion Contra el Hambre (Action against Hunger).
Carrero’s children are smaller than average for their age, and one of the couple’s daughters, Angelimar, has pulmonary problems.
Besides living far from home in impoverished conditions, Venezuela’s migrant population has faced an unexpected scourge of a different sort in recent months: incidents of xenophobia and racism that run the gamut from public discrimination to death threats.
During the interview, the family members said they have felt welcome and worry-free since their arrival in Puerto Asis and their laughter and good cheer reflect those feelings.
But Carrero, who is still nursing his broken and infected leg, may have the explanation: “I haven’t gone out on the street yet.”