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Indigenous migrant women from Venezuela: extremely vulnerable to COVID-19

The border closure caused by the pandemic impacts Venezuela’s indigenous migrants particularly harshly. And the first cases of coronavirus have already been detected among the Yukpa people. Español

Sabrina Velandia
15 April 2020
A boy is with his family in one of UNICEF's three temporary relief tents in Rumichaca, Ecuador, on the Colombian side of the border.
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Photo: Unicef Ecuador/Flickr, under CC.

A lot has been said about the Venezuelan migration crisis and the increase in Venezuelan migrants but little is known about the situation of indigenous migrants – most of whom belong to the Wayúu, Warao, Yukpa and Pemón ethnic groups.

The “Complex Humanitarian Emergency” in Venezuelahas has driven more than 4.7 million Venezuelans out of their homes since 2015. This forced migration has been described by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as the largest exodus in the region's recent history.

In addition, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela’s borders with Brazil and Colombia have been closed since mid-March, aggravating the situation of indigenous migrants. Since they cannot use the border crossings - such as Cúcuta in Colombia - to source medicines, food and other basic products on the other side of the border, the use of illegal trails or crossings has increased and, with it, the dangers to which they are vulnerable.

Although indigenous women constitute a small percentage of the millions of migrants, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) warns that they are part of one of the most vulnerable groups, given their combined status as indigenous people, migrants and women.

According to the Colombian Health Ministry, two indigenous people of the Yukpa ethnic group have been diagnosed with COVID-19 on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. According to a report by the local newspaper LaFm, in Norte de Santander, around 174 residents of the area - including pregnant indigenous people and children - were quarantined as a preventive measure.

Although the Colombian authorities said they are actively seeking out symptomatic patients in order to prevent the spread, they face difficulties in doing so, including the fact that Yukpa people- who live in a state of poverty in approximately 15 Colombian cities - are semi-nomadic, making it difficult to implement the quarantine.

Indigenous migrants have been forced to leave their ancestral territories in Venezuela because of hunger, disease, violence, and threats related to the exploitation of their habitat and resources

Indigenous migrants have been forced to leave their ancestral territories in Venezuela because of hunger, disease, violence, and threats related to the exploitation of their habitat and resources, according to research by UNHCR and the Venezuelan Program for Education-Action in Human Rights (Provea).

Eligio Tejerina, an indigenous leader of the Warao ethnic group, now in Boa Vista, told the UNHCR: "We decided to come to Brazil because our children were dying of hunger. They were crying because of hunger. They only ate once a day, at night. Only a small portion."

According to the Guajira Human Rights Committee, the massive migration of indigenous people has forced the breakdown of families and communities, leaving feelings of emptiness and loneliness that are difficult to overcome, given the community nature of their societies.

Johanna Reina, UNHCR Colombia's protection assistant, says: "They face challenges of loss of identity, including their language, and a dramatic deterioration of their organizational structures.

According to the UNHCR, other obstacles they face are language limitations - many of them speak only their native languages and depend on bilingual indigenous men to communicate - as well as lack of ID documents, which prevents access to public policies from which they could benefit.

The migration of indigenous women

According to the International Humanitarian Federation, along their journey, women migrants are subjected to constraints, robbery and abuse by authorities and armed groups. They arrive frightened, tired, hungry and in dire need of assistance, mainly in border towns in Colombia and Brazil. On arrival, they describe how in Venezuela they had to deal with situations such as the death of their children due to lack of access to health, food and basic hygiene, according to the IOM report.

Dozens of them are accompanied by their young children or are pregnant, which increases their vulnerability. During their journey, Human Rights Watch reports that they walk an average of 16 hours a day for approximately 13 days.

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At night, migrant children and mothers gather at a UNICEF tent in Rumichaca, on the Ecuadorian side of the border with Colombia | Photo: UNICEF Ecuador/Flickr. Under CC.

Upon arrival at their destinations, the risks, although minor, are not non-existent. IOM and Provea have noted the concern and unease of some authorities and the host population with regard to the presence of indigenous Venezuelans, which has led to outbreaks of xenophobia and violence.

Both organizations also warn that indigenous migrants could be victims of poverty, labour exploitation and might be forced to return to Venezuela without the proper enforcement of the law. They are at greater risk of being subjected to prostitution and child abuse because they are an ethnic and linguistic minority, and because their shelters are close to human trafficking networks.

This is in addition to difficulties that pre-date the migration crisis. Historically, in host countries, the relationship with their indigenous peoples has been complex, especially because of persistent stereotypes, the origin of which can be traced to systematic assimilation policies, according to IOM.

For all these reasons, the UN Human Rights Council recommends that the authorities sanction xenophobia and racism against migrants, and adopt a focus on gender, while the IOM suggests, in particular, adapting the assistance to indigenous migrants to their condition as ethnic, linguistic and gender minorities.

Indigenous people have fundamental rights such as the right to a life free from discrimination and violence, and the right to free movement and assistance.

They also enjoy special rights related to the right to a binational indigenous identity - Venezuelan and Colombian, for example - such as the right to equal and non-assimilationist treatment, land and autonomy.

Despite the difficulties, the indigenous migrants told UNHCR in 2018 that their situation in Brazil and Colombia is better than that in Venezuela, as they are able to meet their basic needs thanks to coordination between governments and organizations. However, currently, more than 100,000 indigenous families in Colombia face new risks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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This article was originally published in Global Voices. Read the original here.

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