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Sick Venezuelans Flee to Colombia as Refugee Crisis Worsens

People standing in line to try to cross a Venezuela from Colombia through the Simón Bolívar International Bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, on February 13, 2018. (REUTERS / Carlos Eduardo Ramírez)
People standing in line to try to cross a Venezuela from Colombia through the Simón Bolívar International Bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, on February 13, 2018. (REUTERS / Carlos Eduardo Ramírez)
Sick Venezuelans Flee to Colombia as Refugee Crisis Worsens
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In a hospital near Colombia’s border with Venezuela, migrants fill beds with the wounds of the nation they left behind.

An 18-year-old woman rubbed her stomach. She fled Venezuela with her new born daughter when the wounds she suffered while giving birth became infected.

A young man hurt in a motorcycle crash needed antibiotic drugs for an infection.

A retiree with an enlarged foot arrived at the hospital after taking a 20-hour bus ride from Caracas. He went there because Venezuelan doctors told his family he needed the foot cut off — without antibiotics or drugs to control pain during the operation.

"If you want to sign, sign. But we are not responsible for the life of your father," said Teresa Tobar. She was repeating what the doctors told her when they handed over the papers for her father's operation.

As Venezuela's economic crisis worsens, rising numbers of people are fleeing overseas. Independent groups say as many as 3 million to 4 million Venezuelans have left their homeland in recent years. Several hundred thousand reportedly left in 2017 alone.

Many of those are arriving in Colombia by foot and going to emergency rooms there with medical conditions that Venezuelan hospitals can no longer treat.

Health officials say Venezuelans made nearly 25,000 visits to Colombian emergency rooms last year, up from just 1,500 in 2015. At hospitals in border cities like Cucuta, patients lay side by side on stretchers, not much unlike the conditions they fled back home.

Officials predict the number of Venezuelans being treated at Colombian hospitals could double in 2018. They say the nation's public health system cannot help the large number of refugees.

Colombia cannot pay the cost of medical treatment for everyone arriving, said Julio Saenz, an adviser on migrant affairs to Colombia's Health Ministry. “It’s “a very big concern," he added.

The Venezuelans are fleeing a national government that has been unable to stop rising costs. The high rate of inflation makes Venezuelan money nearly worthless and forces millions to go hungry. Migrants say the country’s collapsing health system is also forcing them to leave as things like antibiotics become hard to find or too pricey.

"I said to myself, 'I have nowhere else to go,'" noted Grecia Sabala, a 32-year-old mother. She went to Colombia for treatment for cancer because doctors in Venezuela were unable to offer any treatment.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has refused to accept humanitarian aid. Maduro denies there is a crisis in the country. He added that permitting international aid could lead to foreign intervention.

Yet what little information officials have released shows Venezuelans are facing problems. The numbers of babies and mothers dying have risen sharply. And diseases like diphtheria, which officials thought was no longer a health threat, have reappeared.

Health officials are especially concerned about the spread of infectious diseases. Colombian doctors confirmed numerous cases of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV among Venezuelan migrants last year.

"It's increasing the numbers of some illnesses that we had under control," Saenz said.

By law, Colombia's hospitals are required to treat any person, local or foreign, who shows up at an emergency room. But many Venezuelans are arriving with conditions like cancer, which requires costly, continuing care. Health centers in Colombia are not required to provide those treatments.

Hospitals offer “emergency room care, but beyond that there is no more we can do," said Juan Ramirez, director of Cucuta’s Erasmo Meoz Hospital.

Cucuta health officials estimate the cost of caring for Venezuelan migrants will be millions of dollars this year. Most of that money comes from local agencies, many of which are low on financial resources. Health officials say they need the help of the central government and international community.

Aside from providing health care, border cities are also seeing a rise in the sex trade and groups of men, women and children sleeping on the streets.

President Juan Manuel Santos is being pressured to declare an emergency, which would free up additional money.

The United States’ Agency for International Development recently sent its top official for Latin America to Cucuta. The aim of the fact-finding trip was to see how the U.S. can help Colombia with the growing crisis.

The Colombian health ministry is planning to send six mobile medical centers to the border area to treat minor conditions.

A Colombia Red Cross medical station already operates at the foot of the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, where about 35,000 Venezuelans enter the country each day. The Red Cross station treats several hundred Venezuelans every week.

Michel Briceno, the young new mother who fled to Colombia after giving birth, said she knew she had to leave Venezuela. She said she made the decision after learning that several other women at the Venezuelan hospital had gotten sick and died.

When she saw the infection, she and her husband, their young son and newborn daughter took a small bus for a 12-hour ride into Colombia. She felt terrible pain during the ride.

Briceno said if she had stayed in Venezuela “I would have died.”

I'm Susan Shand. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Christine Armario reported this story for the Associated Press. Susan Shand adapted her report for VOA Learning English. The editor was George Grow.


Words in This Story

migrant – n. a person who goes from one area to another especially to find work

illness – n. a health problem, sickness

mobile adj. able to move from one place to another