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Venezuelans Are Continuing To Leave Their Country By Any Means Necessary


Venezuela's crisis can be captured by the staggering amount of people who have left the country. The U.N. says that number is 2.3 million in just the last four years. One main reason is because there isn't enough food. Several neighboring countries are now tightening their borders as people keep leaving Venezuela. John Otis sent this report from Colombia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: These Venezuelan refugees have just crossed into the Colombian border town of Cucuta. They are now on their way to Bogota 350 miles away, and they're are walking. Refugees line the highway leading out of Cucuta. They drag roller suitcases and carry duffel bags. Some wear flip-flops.

GALIANIS RIOS: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Galianis Rios, who's walking with 12 fellow refugees, explains that smugglers demanded most of their money to take them across the border into Colombia. Buses zoom by, but Rios and her colleagues can't afford bus fare. They sold their watches and other valuables for food, but it's running out. The U.N. says that about half of all Venezuelan refugees are malnourished. They also require medical care and are desperate for work. That's putting a huge strain on the countries they're arriving in, mainly Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, which are struggling to provide jobs and health care for their own populations. Kyle Johnson is based in Colombia for the International Crisis Group.

KYLE JOHNSON: A million Venezuelan refugees in a year to or up to 2 million in the last five years or so is well beyond the capacity of any South American nation of what they can handle in terms of refugees. And so that's what makes it a crisis.

OTIS: Tensions are rising. Earlier this month, Brazilians burned a refugee camp on the border after accusing Venezuelans of assaulting a local shopkeeper. Ecuador and Peru plan to require that incoming Venezuelans carry passports. But Johnson says most lack the money for passports, while paper and ink shortages in Venezuela mean fewer are being printed.

JOHNSON: And it's denying the reality that most Venezuelans just because of the situation in Venezuela do not have access to a passport. They simply don't.

OTIS: Back on the highway, the Venezuelans walking to Bogota don't realize what they're in for.

RIOS: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Rios, who is 18 and left Venezuela because she could no longer afford her college tuition payments, estimates it will take a week to walk to Bogota. The journey actually takes more than a month and involves climbing mountain peaks 10,000 feet high. But Rios' group is determined to make it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: As they walk, they encourage one another, sharing water, bread and cigarettes. They also meet some friendly Colombians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: This taxi driver agrees to take Rios and several other refugees about 10 miles down the road to a river. There they take much-needed baths and soak the blisters on their feet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: They decide to camp here for the night, though their camping gear consists of just a few blankets. As the sun sets, one of the refugees, Bian Lopez, recalls that during economic booms, Venezuela opened its doors to throngs of migrants. He hopes neighboring countries will return the favor.

BIAN LOPEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "They should lend us a hand," he says, "because we Venezuelans are suffering." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.