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Since 2015, some 5 million Venezuelans alarmed at the country’s economic implosion have migrated to South America, to the U.S. and Europe, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. Most who stayed behind get by on a minimum wage that’s the equivalent of about $2 a month.
About half of the Venezuelans who emigrated to other South American countries are so-called “informal” sector workers whose jobs were hit hard by the virus’ economic impact and there are few if any social safety nets to help them.
Of the 15 percent of Venezuelans who abandoned their country, about 1.8 million went to neighboring Colombia. Others headed to Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Those who found more success than informal sector workers started businesses and enrolled their children in schools.
But the coronavirus abruptly halted many migrants’ aspirations and limited their ability to help economically hurting relatives back home.
About 20,000 Venezuelans went home since early March, according to Colombia’s government, which has paid for about 396 bus trips to take them to the Venezuelan border.
Venezuelans abroad in South America are at high risk of infection because they must work in public or remain cooped up in increasingly crowded apartments, said Provash Budden, regional Americas director for the Mercy Corps humanitarian aid group.
Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has said Venezuelans are welcomed home, but images shared by the returning migrants suggest otherwise.
Some who arrived at the city of San Cristobal near the border with Colombia last month were held for two weeks in a sports complex under military guard, in tight quarters that made social distancing difficult.
The returning migrants find communities with shuttered hospitals because thousands of doctors and nurses left the country.
As of Sunday, Venezuela has reported 402 cases of COVID-19 with only 10 deaths, though experts believe the actual number is much higher because so little testing has been done and the type of testing does not reveal recent infections.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.