By Anggy Polanco
CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Colombia will tighten border controls with Venezuela and provide extra aid as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans flee an economic crisis, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Thursday, even while his country already spends millions of dollars to support the migrants.
The number of Venezuelans living in Colombia increased 62 percent in the last half of 2017 to over 550,000, the migration authority has said, as their oil-rich country suffers runaway inflation and rising malnutrition.
Many arrive in abject poverty, forced to sleep in doorways and under bridges while they try to scrape together enough money to feed their children.
Although there has been little impact so far on Colombian employment, many jobs in the agriculture sector and service industries are going to Venezuelans, often paid under the table without benefits. Already strained education and health services are also being stretched, government sources have said.
Santos said he would put in place stricter migratory controls along the Venezuelan border, temporarily suspending new daily entry cards for Venezuelans, and deploy 3,000 new security personnel, including 2,120 more soldiers, along the shared frontier.
Speaking in Cucuta, a border city of about 670,000 Colombian inhabitants, Santos warned that he would not tolerate crime committed by migrants and would prosecute any unlawful behavior.
“The problem of the Venezuelan migrants has been growing, its a complex problem, a problem that we are not used to,” Santos said during his visit to an aid warehouse, surrounded by ministers and local officials.
He will create a new registry of Venezuelans already in Colombia – to better gauge the number of migrants in the country – and open a center with the help of the United Nations to provide aid.
Colombia estimates it costs $5 per day to supply each Venezuelan migrant with food and lodging. The government did not provide figures on how many migrants it was supporting.
“CALAMITY OF THE BORDER”
Apart from permanent migrants, about 30,000 Venezuelans flood over the border daily to cities like Cucuta, in northeastern Colombia, to try to earn a living selling everything from fruits to their own hair.
On Saturday the government opened a shelter for about 100 migrants to replace an illegal tent city that had grown up on a sports field.
Most migrants lack work or residency visas and cross into Colombia along the 2,219 km (1,379-mile) porous land border or across the pedestrian bridge that connects Cucuta to Venezuela.
Santos urged Venezuelans already in Colombia to report their presence to the government so they could receive documentation, allowing them access to certain public services.
About 1.3 million Venezuelans have registered for the special migration card that allows them to cross the border by day to buy food and other products that are scarce in their own country. No more will be issued for now, Santos said.
While Venezuelan professionals like doctors and engineers have found work in big cities or in Colombia’s oil industry, the bulk of the poor have settled in Colombian border towns.
“It’s good Juan Manuel is coming to see the calamity of the border, because on the Venezuelan side we’re dying of hunger and we can’t get medicine,” said Venezuelan Carmen Garcia, a 55-year-old vegetable seller, referring to the Colombian president.
“I ask the Colombian president to keep receiving us and not close the border.”
Some migrants make money smuggling in heavily subsidized but increasingly unavailable Venezuelan goods to sell cheaply, undercutting local businesses.
Santos and Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro have clashed repeatedly over the migration issue.
“I want to repeat to President Maduro – this is the result of your policies, it is not the fault of Colombians and it’s the result of your refusal to receive humanitarian aid which has been offered in every way, not just from Colombia but from the international community,” Santos said.
“We must avoid as much as possible xenophobia, we must avoid hostile actions against Venezuelans,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Nelson Bocanegra; writing by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb)