In Colombia, Venezuelan children are forced to work

February 22, 2022 12:48 PM

Eduardo (the names of the children have been changed for security reasons), 13, is funny and likes to chat. He has a fat attitude even though he looks less than his age. In mid-2019, he traveled with his brother Esteban, then 16 years old, the 687 kilometers that separate Valencia, the city where he lived in Venezuela, from Cúcuta, in Colombia, on the border between the two countries. They are joined by parents and other siblings, a 19-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl. His father left in 2018 and his mother came to him a few months later. They are leaving because of the economic, social and political crisis that has hit Venezuela. According to the United Nations, nearly six million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015.

Eduardo likes to go out in shorts and a T-shirt, they are comfortable in warm weather and also play football at home. If work allows it. From his age he should only worry about studying and playing, instead he sells mandarins on the street, sometimes more than fifteen hours straight. The father, who works alone in the family next to him, is dedicated to every activity, from construction to unloading of goods.

Eduardo’s life is similar to that of many Venezuelan minors who moved to Colombia: they were exposed to work and sexual exploitation, and mistreatment and ambush by criminal organizations. The activities they are forced to do range from goods on the road to sexual services online, from smuggling to drug trafficking.

As of August 31, 2021, Migración Colombia recorded 1,842,390 Venezuelans living in the country, while according to a report by the Statistics Institute, there were more than two million Venezuelans by 2020. The Rosario University Observatory for Venezuela compared these data with the 2019 Quality of Life Survey, according to which 38 percent of the immigrant population is under 18 years of age. Based on this estimate, 857,660 Venezuelan immigrants would not reach the age of majority.

None of the organizations dealing with migrants point to how many Venezuelan boys, girls and young people in Colombia work under exploitation conditions. But some hypothesize how many minors are outside the education system: 44.9 percent, according to the Venezuelan Observatory, which is nearly four hundred thousand.

Away from school
According to Lala Lovera, director of the Fundación Comparte por una vida, the fact that children do not go to school makes them more vulnerable. “In Venezuela, I reached the seventh grade. I never thought about studying here. I do not even know if my parents have the documents to enroll me in school,” says Eduardo. With his family in difficulty and without going to school, the boy was pleased by the offer of a Colombian, who promised him ten thousand pesos (a little more than two euros) a day to sell mandarins.

His working days started at six in the morning and could last until evening, from Tuesday to Sunday. Early in the morning he went to the market to get some fruit and then wandered through the different districts of Cúcuta. “In the beginning I suffered, then I got used to the weight and felt less tired.” Eduardo was never afraid and was never robbed, threatened or abused. But yours is an extraordinary case. According to organizations working with migrant children, the majority are facing abuse and threats. Many are co-opted by local criminal groups.

Eduardo worked only a few months with the Lord of the Mandarins. He gave up after a few weeks of not getting paid. Now he only sells fruit by the lights: “I go less and earn more,” he says.

Andres is 12 years old. He too was born in Valencia, in the Venezuelan state of Carabobo. He is shy, talks little, has brown hair. Her face conveys sadness. He arrived in Cúcuta almost a year ago, together with his parents. He studied in Venezuela, and in Colombia he works because his family’s income is barely enough for rent. “I buy things for myself. I do not go to school because we come back to Venezuela,” he explains. For five months he was part of the “network” of the Lord of Mandarins. He was never paid. Now he is working with Eduardo.

Carlos Cárdenas, a collaborator with the Unified Association for the Same End, says his organization has identified the man who employs migrant children between the ages of 8 and 13. He offers the children cellphones, clothes and shoes and asks them to sell the fruit in exchange. Eduardo and Andres are gone, but many other children continue to be exploited. Do League Against Silence tried to contact the Colombian Institute de bienestar confidently about these and other cases, but got no response.

Police Complicity
According to Ronal Rodríguez, researcher and spokesman for the Observatory for Venezuela, minors usually come to Colombia with a poor education, without an adequate vaccination rate and with high levels of malnutrition, especially in early childhood. Their motor, psychological and intellectual development is in jeopardy. Along the secret routes that migrants travel to reach Colombia, there have been cases of abuse and rape of boys and girls. “Children are victims of criminal organizations, especially in areas where the state is lacking and when relationships with parents are difficult,” Rodríguez explained. “When family relationships deteriorate or do not exist, criminal organizations benefit from it.”

In most cases, adults do not have documents and therefore can not find stable work. Extreme poverty pushes minors to work to help their parents. Nahirolí Urbina Moreno, 38, lived in Villa de Cura in the Venezuelan state of Aragua. The 17-year-old daughter suffers from type 2 mucopolysaccharidosis, a rare condition for which she has difficulty walking, among other things. To earn money, he sells lottery tickets from home in Cúcuta.

In most cases, adults do not have documents and therefore can not find stable work

Moreno left Venezuela in 2019 and arrived in Colombia to care for her daughter and partner, but has so far not been successful. The man suffered a hemiparesis through a Vhr bullet during a robbery attempt in Venezuela. “I used to work from home, now I’m unemployed. Sometimes they call me on Sundays to help out at a restaurant. My daughter helps me sell lottery tickets and we can survive with the proceeds, “she says. In the last six months of 2021, Moreno’s family received help from an international organization.

Ana Teresa Castillo, President of the DereDez Foundation, knows stories of migrant children living with their families or traveling alone and falling into the nets of work and sexual exploitation in the Norte de Santander department. Many gangs operate with the complicity of the police.

“The minors come and sleep on the street. Some groups on the edge of the law like Tren de Aragua (Venezuelan criminal gang) take them, make them fall into the habit and force them to steal cell phones and ask for a toll of migrants passing by “They tell the girls that they work in the shops, but they sell them and take them to other countries,” says Castillo.

Through the Fundación DereDez, Castillo condemned two gangs that exploited underage migrants. The first time he did it in Cúcuta, but he received threats and asked for the protection of the authorities. Now he is pursuing his case in Bogotá and Bucaramanga. “In Cúcuta, the gangs are working with the local police and prosecutors,” he explained. Several gang members have been arrested, but Castillo fears the Cúcuta prosecutor will drop the lawsuits for child exploitation.

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According to Beatriz Mora, director of the Tachirense de la mujer institute, which deals with women’s rights in Venezuela and offers psychological and legal support to minors, the police have been accompanied by those who practice exploitation for work and sexual purposes. Usually, says Mora, the criminals are Venezuelan citizens with connections to Colombia and other countries. Children traveling on their own in search of a job promise will get paid tickets from their hometown to the border, in San Antonio, in the state of Táchira.

The risks to migrant children are similar on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border. In Colombia, the introduction of the temporary protection status of the Iván Duque government could help to improve the lives of these children.

(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)

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