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People Fleeing Venezuela Tops 4 Million, U.N. Refugee Agency Says


The number of people fleeing Venezuela has now exceeded 4 million. That's according to the U.N. Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration, which called the pace of the outflow staggering. Here's United Nations special envoy Angelina Jolie talking from the Venezuela-Colombia border on Sunday.


ANGELINA JOLIE: This is a life-and-death situation for millions. UNHCR has received only a fraction of the funds it needs to do even the bare minimum to help them survive.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's remember the geography here. We said she's on the Venezuela-Colombia border. Colombia's the next country west of Venezuela. That's where a lot of people are going. We've heard our colleague Ari Shapiro with a lot of dramatic reporting on Colombian refugees, and now the outflow has increased. So let's get an update from reporter John Otis, who has been reporting for the region, is in Colombia now. Hi there, John.

JOHN OTIS: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are conditions where you are?

OTIS: Well, you know, up on the Colombia-Venezuela border, that's actually one of the busiest in all of South America. And President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela blocked those border crossings back in February over a dispute with the political opposition. The bridges were blocked with shipping containers, and that forced Venezuelans who were trying to get across to Colombia to go along clandestine footpaths that are quite dangerous 'cause these footpaths, many of them are controlled by drug trafficking groups, and there were sometimes shootouts between them. And what's happening up there on the border, Steve, is that lots of Venezuelans go across to Colombia just for even a few hours 'cause they need to buy food and medicine and other things that they can't get back home.

So there's just a lot of back and forth. Colombia's become quite a lifeline for Venezuela as the crisis gets worse. People need to get across. Even coming across and working odd jobs and, you know, picking up a few dollars - that's enough, once they go back to Venezuela, to live for a few days.

INSKEEP: OK. So some of the regular border crossings have reopened for the moment. People are going back and forth, but some people just go. How are the countries in the region, the neighboring countries, handling millions of people?

OTIS: You know, for the most part, they seem to be doing a pretty good job. They seem to be maintaining kind of an open-door policy. Colombia, especially, because many Colombians crossed over and emigrated to Venezuela back in the '80s and '90s during Colombia's period of horrific drug-fueled violence and guerrilla war. So there's kind of a common understanding between the two countries. Colombia's now home to about 1.3 million Venezuelans. And it's a real mix. You know, you've got highly educated Venezuelans coming across working as university professors and in Colombia's oil industry. You've got construction workers. But, you know, the down and out, you'll find them begging on the streets of Bogota.

Now, the one upside, or one of the upsides of this outward flow is that these Venezuelans are able to, again, find jobs and send money back to their loved ones back in Venezuela who really are depending on U.S. dollars these days to get along as hyperinflation soars in that country.

INSKEEP: I guess that means also that some of the Venezuelans are contributing to the local economies of the countries to which they flee.

OTIS: That's true. But, you know, as this crisis continues, you know, there are concerns about rising xenophobia. Peru, for example, is just putting some new restrictions on Venezuelans coming into their country because they're blaming Venezuelan immigrants for a rise in crime. So we could see more of these kinds of measures as the crisis continues.

INSKEEP: John, thanks for your reporting.

OTIS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's independent journalist John Otis in Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.