MAICAO, Colombia — Mayerly Sánchez stood in the slow-moving food line at the refugee camp here, 10 miles from the Venezuela frontier. Deaf and mute, the 31-year-old single mother rubbed her stomach and gestured toward her mouth.
“She wants to eat,” her 9-year-old son, Antonio, explained.
Sánchez and Antonio, and tens of thousands like them here, embody a new phase in the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history. Years into the mass exodus from crumbling Venezuela, a fresh swell of the country’s most vulnerable — impoverished women and children, the elderly, ill and disabled — is pouring out, overwhelming the capacity of Colombia, by far the single largest host nation, to absorb them.
Six months after the Venezuelan opposition began its U.S.-backed effort to drive President Nicolás Maduro from office, conditions for the people have perhaps never been worse. They are struggling under ever-deepening shortages of medicine, food, gas and water, and widespread power blackouts in a disintegrating socialist state plagued by one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
Venezuelans expect the new round of sanctions President Trump announced this week to increase their suffering. The executive order he signed Monday freezes all property and assets held by the Venezuelan government and its officials, and prohibits transactions with entities including the central bank and the state-run oil company — putting the country on a footing similar to that of Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria. Maduro has responded by pulling out of talks with the opposition.
But long before the United States began imposing sanctions, hunger — and dwindling hope for change — spurred an outflow now stretching into its fourth year. Yet if migration in previous years was characterized by large numbers of relatively better-off professionals and able-bodied men, the latest arrivals, aid workers and officials say, are increasingly poorer and more vulnerable Venezuelans for whom migration is more difficult but who see little alternative.
From November to June, the most recent period for which data is available, petitions for legal status in Colombia from women and the elderly, for instance, have outpaced those from men. Shelters and charities working in Colombia are warning of sharp increases in the numbers of pregnant women, children and elderly migrants, many of whom are entering the country via dangerous, illegal routes.
“Colombia is calling on the world for more solidarity,” said Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Colombia’s foreign minister. “We have done everything we can. We have taken humanitarian action. We have defined public policy for this. We have assigned national resources, and local ones. But the magnitude of this migration surpasses our capacity to handle it.”
With more than 4 million displaced, Venezuelans make up the world’s second-largest refugee crisis, after Syrians — but they haven’t received nearly as much help from the international community. Spending on Syrians peaked at more than $5,000 per displaced person, the Organization of American States reported in July. Venezuelans have received about $300 per person.
A $738 million appeal by the United Nations and other organizations last year has netted less than a quarter of that goal.
Analysts say European nations — fearing waves of Syrians washing up on their shores — have given more generously to set up camps to keep them in the Middle East.
Some of those governments consider the Venezuelan crisis, in contrast, a remote and politically driven byproduct of the standoff between the Trump administration and Maduro that is less likely to affect them.
Yet countries such as Colombia also have been reluctant to embrace large camps, viewing them as barriers to the long-term integration of Venezuelan migrants.
“Both Syrians and Venezuelans have been classified by us as ‘people in need of protection,’ but countries have handled them differently,” said Yukiko Iriyama, deputy director of the U.N. refugee agency in Colombia.
“The thing is, in Syria, the whole crisis happened close to Europe,” she said. “The state capacity in this region is nothing like in Europe.”
In Colombia, reception centers, hospitals and schools are overwhelmed, and thousands of pregnant women, children, elderly and other vulnerable Venezuelans are left to sleep on the streets.
Nowhere is that more clear than in Maicao, one of Colombia’s poorest cities and a festering hub of the border trade in contraband. Venezuelan migrants have sent the population soaring to 280,000, local officials say, a 58 percent increase in just three years. Ten improvised shantytowns have sprung up, stretching already limited supplies of water and electricity.
Local officials say narco-traffickers are recruiting desperate Venezuelans into the cocaine trade. Inmates at the local jail are roughly split between Venezuelans and Colombians.
From January to June, doctors at San Jose Hospital of Maicao treated more than 7,100 Venezuelans, including more than 2,000 pregnant women and nearly 1,000 children younger than 5.
The treatments have sparked serious cost overruns, officials say, with expenses running more than double the rate of 2015. Cases of measles have ballooned to 40 this year, from just one in 2018. The hospital is struggling to treat a surge in Venezuelan women subjected to rape and physical abuse and Venezuelans arriving with sexually transmitted diseases.
“Vulnerable people are coming, and they can’t be protected from being recruited by criminal groups, narco-traffickers and into prostitution,” said Aldemiro Santo Choles, Maicao’s city manager.
Maicao has few available shelters for penniless arrivals, and its streets at night are lined with vulnerable Venezuelans sleeping on cardboard. Among their number: Katherine Muñoz, 20, who clutched her pregnant belly with one hand and held her 18-month-old daughter with the other.
The girl, Josiani, was naked — because, Muñoz said, thieves had stolen her clothes from a laundry line.
“Living in the street is hard,” she said. “But it is better than Venezuela.”
Mayerly Sánchez isn’t so sure. She and Antonio had arrived at the U.N. refugee camp in Maicao only hours earlier, after waiting three weeks for a spot.
For now, they’re fortunate. After squatting in a nearby shantytown, where they ate irregularly and had their cellphone stolen, they’ll get a clean tent, a measure of safety and three meals a day. But that’s for only 30 days, the maximum stay allowed. There are about 1.4 million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, and only one full-fledged refugee camp. It has 350 beds.
Where will Sánchez and Antonio go when their time is up?
Sánchez looked down, her hands moving. Antonio, clutching his Spider-Man backpack, interpreted.
“It is hard here,” he said. “Maybe we’ll go back to Venezuela.”
Armando Cuadros, 74, a retired tailor with failing eyesight, appeared confused as he searched a sidewalk for a missing shoe. He had arrived here alone a few days earlier, he said, walking three hours along an illegal route across the border.
He had to leave Venezuela, he said, because he could no longer live on his $4 monthly pension check and had dropped 35 pounds in two years. He’d lost hope for a change in the government and could no longer bear to take food out of the mouths of his adult children and grandchildren, who had been helping him get by.
He shuffled with one shoe, one foot bare, toward the patch of ground where he has slept for days while waiting for a bed in a shelter.
“This doesn’t feel good, doing this at this age,” he said.
“Look at me. The world needs to do more.”