The exodus of Venezuelans fleeing economic and political crisis in their homeland has accelerated dramatically, reaching a total of about 3 million since 2015, the United Nations has announced.
The new figures show that about one in 12 of the population has now left the country, driven by violence, hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicines.
The rate of migration has sped up in the past six months, said William Spindler of the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), which appealed for greater international efforts to ease the strain on Venezuela’s neighbours.
Oil-rich Venezuela has sunk into crisis under socialist president Nicolás Maduro, who has struggled to rein in hyperinflation and clamped down on political opponents.
UN data in September showed 2.6 million had fled to neighbouring countries, but regional governments are struggling to cope with the humanitarian and political fallout from one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history.
“The main increases continue to be reported in Colombia and Peru,” Spindler said.
Colombia is sheltering 1 million Venezuelans. About 3,000 more arrive each day, and the Bogota government says 4 million could be living there by 2021, costing it nearly $9bn.
Around 300 refugees, who arrived with nothing beyond what they could carry, have made camp outside the bus terminal in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.
Josmelis Lozada, 21, fled two months ago with her husband and six-month-old daughter.
“When you can’t find food, when your daughter could get sick at any moment, that’s when you know you have to leave,” Lozada said, clutching her baby to her breast. “But here we have no work, we have nothing to do, so we may have to go back.”
Once a waitress in an upmarket restaurant in Valencia, Venezuela’s third largest city, she now spends her days begging for small change outside a shopping centre.
Paola Rondon, a 17-year-old student from Maracay, a northern Venezuelan city, travelled with her boyfriend to Cúcuta, a city on the Colombian side of the border.
Without any money left for the rest of the journey, they walked the remaining 345 miles to Bogotá in hope of finding work. They currently live in a makeshift tent, sleeping on a camping mattress that locals donated.
“That was a long, tiring walk,” she said. “One day I hope to go back to finish my studies but it is hard to see things getting better there.”
Maduro has dismissed UN migration figures as “fake news” meant to justify foreign intervention in Venezuela’s affairs.
“Maduro only cares about himself,” said Augustín Pérez, a 51-year-old from Caracas, now camping in Bogotá with his wife and four children. “He doesn’t care about the people with nothing to eat … while his cronies all get fat.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR said the exodus was straining several neighbouring countries, notably Colombia.
“Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have largely maintained a commendable open-door policy,” said Eduardo Stein, UNHCR-IOM joint special representative for refugees and migrants from Venezuela. “However, their reception capacity is severely strained, requiring a more robust and immediate response from the international community.”
After Colombia, Peru has received the next-largest number of Venezuelans with over 500,000. Ecuador has over 220,000, Argentina 130,000, Chile over 100,000, Panama 94,000 and Brazil 85,000.
The response of Latin American countries to the migration crisis marks a stark difference to the Trump administration’s efforts to demonize a caravan of 7,000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, currently making its way through Mexico towards the the United States’ southern border, where they plan to seek asylum.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a thinktank, tweeted: “An expert I talked to today pointed out: how is it that Colombia is receiving 5,000 Venezuelans every day, but the US government is panicked by 7,000 Central Americans?”
Regional government officials are to meet in Quito in Ecuador from 22-23 November to coordinate humanitarian efforts.