Just three days after crossing the border into Colombia to escape food shortages, joblessness and authoritarian rule in Venezuela, Alexander González says he's shocked by the xenophobia of his adopted homeland.
"Colombians treat Venezuelans badly," says González, 19, as he takes a breather in the Colombian town of Pamplona before setting off on foot for the capital of Bogotá. "They practically spit in our faces."
Amid Venezuela's worst-ever economic crisis, which is widely blamed on corruption and mismanagement by President Nicolás Maduro's socialist regime, more than 5 million Venezuelans have fled the country.
The exodus began in 2014 and, since then, about 2 million Venezuelans have settled in neighboring Colombia, with smaller numbers moving to Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and elsewhere in Latin America. Now, this massive influx of migrants and refugees is creating a backlash in Colombia, with some people blaming the newcomers for a host of problems, including rising crime, unemployment and the spread of COVID-19.
The message that Venezuelan migrants are no longer welcome comes from average Colombian citizens and powerful government officials alike. Last week, for example, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that undocumented Venezuelan migrants would not receive vaccinations for the coronavirus despite concerns from refugee agencies that this policy could lead to more infections.
"Of course they won't get it," Duque told a Bogotá radio station. "Otherwise we would have a stampede with the whole world crossing the border to get vaccinated."
Research shows that Venezuelans in Colombia are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. But after a Venezuelan migrant stabbed to death a bus passenger in Bogotá in October, Mayor Claudia López declared: "I don't want to stigmatize immigrants but there are some Venezuelans involved in crimes who are making our lives impossible."
Meanwhile, local officials all across Colombia complain that they've been left largely on their own to deal with a flood of sick and impoverished Venezuelans. This burden comes at a time when the pandemic is already severely straining town and city budgets and is filling up local hospitals with COVID-19 patients.
Initially Colombians offered a warmer welcome to the migrants — perhaps because many knew how it felt to be uprooted. In the 1980s and 1990s, oil-rich Venezuela provided safe haven and jobs to thousands of Colombians fleeing a drug-fueled guerrilla war.
But attitudes are changing now that the exodus of Venezuelans has become the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history and rivals the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. A recent Gallup poll showed that 69% of Colombians have an unfavorable perception of Venezuelan migrants.
Among those who have soured on Venezuelans are many residents and officials Pamplona. Home to 60,000 people and located on the main highway to Bogotá and other major cities, Pamplona has become a pit stop for migrants, with some 300 arriving here every day.
"Pamplona is overflowing with migrants and we have no way to deal with it," says Humberto Pisciotti, the mayor of Pamplona, which is located near Colombia's busiest border crossing with Venezuela. In an interview with NPR, he added: "Now we have chaos."
Many beg for food at houses and restaurants or seek medical care at the town's hospital. Some walk around without face masks. Due to the lack of a shelter for refugees, they sleep outdoors and bathe in rivers and streams.
To dissuade them from bunking down near their homes, some residents pour used motor oil on sidewalks and driveways while town officials have cordoned off parks with yellow tape. Still, the sight of the forlorn campers can provoke xenophobic outbursts.
"They come here at night like rats," says Carlos Espitia, 62, a retired welder, who complains that migrants have taken over the sidewalk in front of his house. "I have to clean up their poop."
Nearly all the migrants leave after a day or two, but town officials say a small number have joined street gangs that sell drugs and rob stores. As a result, residents like Nelson Maldonado view all Venezuelans with suspicion.
"It would be fine if they were people who contributed to the economy," Maldonado says. "But they only come here to commit crimes."
Maldonado, who is the president of a neighborhood association in Pamplona, helped lead a demonstration in September against a plan to build a shelter for migrants. The protesters feared the shelter would attract even more Venezuelans to their town and, after they blocked roads for several hours, Pisciotti, the mayor, announced that he had scrapped the plan.
"I'm not xenophobic," Pisciotti said. "But I can't go against the community."
Even townsfolk who lend a helping hand to Venezuelans have come in for criticism.
Among them is Marta Duque, who, with the help of international agencies, runs an aid station out of her cramped house on the edge of Pamplona. There, migrants line up to receive food, used clothing — and advice on how to safely travel over the freezing Andean Mountain peaks that surround the town.
"The neighbors are always complaining," Duque says (no relation to President Duque). "But I would feel a lot worse if I didn't help the migrants."
As the backlash grows, Colombian police are stepping up operations to deport undocumented migrants who make up more than half of all Venezuelan newcomers, according to immigration officials.
In one such operation near Pamplona, police officers set up a roadblock and detain about 50 Venezuelans, including José Páez. Explaining his decision to leave his homeland, Páez points out that his weekly salary as a baker in Caracas was worth less than a dollar — not even enough to buy a bag of rice. His possessions now amount to a small backpack stuffed with clothes and two peaches that he pulls from his pants pockets.
Turning to the police, Páez begs them to allow him to continue his journey on foot toward Bogotá.
"I've been walking for two days," he says, "and now you are going to send me back?"
Ignoring his pleas, the police put Páez and the other migrants aboard trucks bound for the Venezuelan border.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
About 2 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia to escape food shortages, joblessness and authoritarian rule. But this flood of migrants is creating a backlash. As John Otis reports, Colombians are now blaming Venezuelans for everything from rising crime to the spread of COVID-19.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At this aid station in the Colombian town of Pamplona, volunteers hand out ham and cheese sandwiches to Venezuelan migrants. After walking three days from the Venezuelan border, the travelers are hungry, exhausted and dejected.
ALEXANDER GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: One of the migrants, Alexander Gonzalez, tells me Colombia has become hostile territory for Venezuelans, but many feel they have no other options but to come here.
GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "Colombians," Gonzalez says, "practically spit in our faces."
Initially, Colombians offered a warmer welcome to the migrants, perhaps because many knew how it felt to be uprooted. In the 1980s and '90s, oil-rich Venezuela provided safe haven and jobs to thousands of Colombians fleeing a drug-fueled guerrilla war. But attitudes are changing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Colombian President Ivan Duque told a Bogota radio station that undocumented Venezuelans would not be vaccinated for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, local officials all across the country are complaining that they've been left largely on their own to deal with a flood of impoverished Venezuelans.
HUMBERTO PISCIOTTI: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "Pamplona is overflowing with migrants, and we have no way to deal with it," says the town's mayor, Humberto Pisciotti. "Now we have chaos."
As many as 300 migrants per day arrive in Pamplona, an Andean mountain town that lies along the main highway to Bogota and other major cities. Many beg for food or seek medical care. Nearly all continue their journey after a day or two. But town officials say a small number have joined street gangs that sell drugs and rob stores. Pamplona residents like Nelson Maldonado now regard all Venezuelans with suspicion.
NELSON MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "It would be fine if they were people who contributed to the economy," says Maldonado, "but they only come here to commit crimes."
MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Maldonado helped organize a demonstration against the town's plan to open a shelter for the migrants. The protesters feared the shelter would attract even more Venezuelans. The plan was eventually scrapped. Thus, migrants continue to sleep outside on sidewalks and in town parks.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: As the backlash grows, Colombian police are deporting more and more undocumented migrants. At this roadblock near Pamplona, officers have detained about 50 Venezuelans, including Jose Paez.
JOSE PAEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Paez tells me that he left Venezuela because his weekly salary as a baker wasn't even enough to buy a bag of rice. Then Paez turns to the police officers and asks them to let him go.
PAEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "We came to Colombia seeking a better future," he tells them. "Look at how you're treating us. I've been walking for two days, and now you're going to send me back."
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Ignoring his pleas, the officers put Paez and the other migrants aboard trucks bound for the Venezuelan border.
For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Pamplona, Colombia.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.