Maduro Offers Love for Migrants, Then Locks Them in Sweltering Camps

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan migrants who lost their jobs amid the coronavirus crisis were promised a warm welcome back home by the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Instead, they’re sleeping on cement floors in sweltering quarantine camps, where they’re beaten if they complain.

When Edgard Lopez boarded a cramped bus in Bogota on April 4, he thought he was days away from seeing his family for the first time in three years. He had just lost his job at a cleaning-product factory which closed for the duration of the lockdown imposed by Colombian authorities.

Instead, Lopez is detained at an armed forces’ border checkpoint with hundreds of others, including children and expectant mothers.

Maduro Offers Love for Migrants, Then Locks Them in Sweltering Camps

“They said they would test us and if we came out negative we could keep moving toward our destinations. It was all a lie,” Lopez, 37, said via text message. “They turn on the water only twice a day for two hours and there are 330 of us. If I had known it’d be like this, I would have never come back.”

As swathes of the Colombian economy shut down, thousands of Venezuelans are coming home only to be detained by security forces. The Venezuelan government has imposed quarantine measures on returning migrants as it tries to prevent the pandemic from overwhelming its run-down health system. But it is ill prepared to deal with them.

The country has confirmed 166 cases of the disease and seven deaths.

“All must be received with love, warmth and all preventive measures,” Maduro said of the returning Venezuelans on state TV on April 5. “Now they’ll know they have a motherland. A free and supportive country, ready to greet them with open arms.”

More than 6,000 migrants have returned in the past week, according to opposition lawmaker Gaby Arellano who is assisting returning compatriots. Many more are likely to come. Since Colombia’s 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants often live in hostels that charge rent by the night, and mostly work in the informal economy, the crisis made many of them homeless almost immediately.

Maduro Offers Love for Migrants, Then Locks Them in Sweltering Camps

Venezuela’s Information Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Luis Camargo has been held at the same border post for four days since he crossed on his way back to his wife and children in the state of Zulia in western Venezuela. The only food he gets each day is a corn flour patty in the morning and a couple of spoonfuls of rice for lunch, he says.

“Some tried to escape today and were taken by the guards. Their families don’t know where they are,” Camargo, 37, said Monday via text message. “Another who criticized the government was beaten.”

Those at the border camp have been told they will be held for at least 14 days, the normal incubation period for the virus. Yet the country’s fuel shortage, which has paralyzed much of Venezuela’s transport, could make their return home to families even longer.

“It’s very risky to keep these people with no symptoms and who test negative in refuges,” Laidy Gomez, the governor of the border state Tachira said in a web cast. “If they’re not infected with coronavirus during this quarantine, then they could easily be the target of another disease as consequence of a total lack of public services.”

San Antonio del Tachira, where many of the migrants are being detained, “is a small town which doesn’t have the proper infrastructure,” said Freddy Bernal, a Maduro ally in charge of peacekeeping on the Venezuelan border with Colombia, speaking on state TV. “We’re doing a superhuman effort to give these people some level of comfort.”

Maduro Offers Love for Migrants, Then Locks Them in Sweltering Camps

Bernal said the authorities had ordered thousands of mattresses and were installing toilets, showers and sinks in some of the facilities. A press representative for Bernal didn’t respond to questions regarding the migrants’ conditions.

More than 300 miles away in Barquisimeto, the government has also quarantined some 200 Venezuelans who returned from Colombia in recent days. The group was crowded into small apartments, fed insufficient -- and sometimes rotten -- food, and mistreated by soldiers, according to local human rights NGO Provea.

Maduro said the government was preparing to receive 15,000 Venezuelans from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. An estimated six million Venezuelans have migrated in recent years.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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