Maicao, which lies along Colombia’s frontier with Venezuela, used to have a reputation as a shopping city, offering all manner of goods to eager day-trippers from across the border in Maracaibo, a city of 1.7 million people that is a short drive away and is the seat of Venezuela’s oil sector. Like other Colombian cities, it once thrived off Venezuelans, who not long ago were the continent’s richest people. On weekends, the streets here thronged with Venezuelan families who’d driven over in air-conditioned SUVs.
Today, those visitors have been replaced by destitute migrants, and the streets of Maicao are packed with stalls selling more basic items, from medicine and hygiene products to food and household supplies. Smaller-scale sellers—both locals and Venezuelans—walk the sidewalks, desperately trying to hawk plastic buckets, washcloths, or even recently killed rabbits. On almost every street corner, a handful of people offer packaged snacks and two-ounce cups of sweet coffee. The poorest walk around offering individual candies from a bag, or cigarettes from a box, while those without money to spare for inventory simply beg for change or food. The situation is similar along the thousand-mile border between the two countries, but the scenes in Maicao may be the most dramatic.
Conditions here grew so bad that in January, local and national leaders were finally forced to take the step they’d long hoped to avoid: They asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to set up tents on about 10 acres of barren desert on the outskirts of town. In March, the UN agency opened what it called a “center for temporary attention,” a $1.7 million facility with 60 family-size tents and room for 350 people to stay for six weeks at a go, during which time they have to try to find a job, save up some rent money, or find somewhere else to sleep. “Centers like this,” Jozef Merkx, the UNHCR head for Colombia, told me, “should be a last resort.”
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But few jobs are available here, and many Venezuelans will likely return to the streets when their time expires. Even in a best-case scenario, a humanitarian response involving camps and kitchens may get a few hundred people off the streets and stem hunger, but leaves unanswered the looming, long-term question of how these areas will integrate all these new residents. Maicao, for example, has, in the past six months alone, seen the equivalent of a decade of population growth in the form of migration from Venezuela, Aldemiro Choles, its city secretary, told me. Since last summer, the number of Venezuelans in this city has quadrupled, to an estimated 60,000. Many are unlikely to ever move back home.
Colombia had sought to head off this exact issue, by allowing Venezuelans to come and go freely within a designated border area, and gave more than half a million of them the right to work; all foreign children were also allowed to register at Colombian primary schools. This month, it has gone further, announcing $240 million in funds to bolster the border zone’s economy: Bogotá is offering a special tax break in areas near the border, along with cheap credit to encourage businesses to hire. Local hospitals are also getting more money, and plans to build or improve roadways, aqueducts, and parks have been approved. The government is even funding a community orchestra.