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Targeted for abuse: With borders closed, women fleeing Venezuela face additional threats

November 22, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

If Gabriela Ochoa had known what would happen to her down by the Táchira River that divides Venezuela and Colombia, she never would have crossed.

Many Venezuelan migrants have been living in the city of Cúcuta, the closest major city on the Colombian side of the border, often in the precarious conditions of slums and temporary shelters.

The only option left for Ochoa to make it across to Cúcuta was to cross through one of the nearly 80 muddy, crime-ridden trochas in the Cúcuta area -- informal routes across the Táchira river -- controlled by criminal gangs, guerrillas and paramilitary groups, she said.

For years, Colombia has received the bulk of desperate Venezuelans who cross the border to neighboring countries in search of food, medicine and shelter.

But the pandemic's border closure left no safe way for these migrants to cross the border, exposing more women to sexual abuse, kidnapping, trafficking and murder that is endemic along informal routes.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports a 7% increase in the number of women staying in their three shelters in Cúcuta devoted to women victims of sexual violence, trafficking and single mothers, compared to the same period in 2019 (from April to August).

But the rise in sexual and gender-based violence on the Colombia-Venezuela border predates the pandemic.

In 2019, Profamilia, one of the main sexual and reproductive rights organization in Colombia, said they supported 573 Venezuelan women victims of sexual violence in their clinics—a 92% increase compared to 2018.

What's driving Venezuelans to cross the border hasn't changed, said Lucía Hernández, a lawyer with the international organization Women's Link Worldwide.

More than 5,000 people are currently crossing in both directions through trochas daily, according to FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO monitoring human rights abuses in the border regions.

Many Venezuelan women have been lured into Colombia with fraudulent job offers, and then forced into sex trafficking, according to a recent UNODC report.

When women do report sexual violence and crimes committed at the border, these crimes are rarely investigated and prosecuted, according to local women's organizations.

The Cúcuta police told the Fuller Project they have only received one report of sexual violence since the pandemic border closure in mid-March, and are not aware of any cases involving law enforcement agents.

Since April, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) says the organization has helped 58 Venezuelan women in Cúcuta offering health care resources and other emergency services, while they have another 196 on the waitlist for individual psychological support.

In recent months, more than 100,000 Venezuelans who initially fled to Colombia and other countries in the region have returned to Venezuela through Colombian border points, driven back by the pandemic's regional economic crisis, according to Colombian Migration authorities.

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