In response to the critical needs of a growing number of Venezuelans arriving by foot to Chile’s northern border, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said on Thursday that it is stepping up its presence and assistance in the South American country.

“Children, adolescents, pregnant women and the elderly often need urgent medical support after several days traveling on foot”, said Rebeca Cenalmor-Rejas, Head of UNHCR’s National Office in Chile.

An arduous journey

Every day, between 400 and 500 refugees and migrants from Venezuela cross Chile’s inhospitable northern border with Bolivia. UNHCR is stepping up its response to help them via @refugees

— William Spindler (@SpindlerWilliam) December 23, 2021

Since November, local authorities have reported that between 400 and 500 refugees and migrants from Venezuela have been crossing the border every day from Bolivia into Chile.

“All of them hope to find safety and stability in Chile”, said Ms. Cenalmor-Rejas.

They are driven by the economic impact of COVID-19, which has left many destitute, and are hoping to reunite with family members.

Most Venezuelans use irregular routes, braving the remote Atacama Desert, where dangers include sexual exploitation and abuse by criminal groups.

They journey by foot, lacking the appropriate clothing for the extreme weather conditions of the desert’s long, very hot days and night temperatures that drop to -20 degrees C.

Many arrive hungry and in ill health, suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, hypothermia and altitude sickness.

Moreover, the new arrivals often lack proper shelter and are forced to sleep out in the open.

Since the beginning of the year, some 21 people have lost their lives at Chile’s northern border.

Providing assistance

Without proper documentation, those on the move cannot find regular jobs and, without resources, face difficulties in continuing their journey from border areas to other cities.

UNHCR is strengthening its response at the northern border to support national, regional and local authorities in guaranteeing safe access and improving reception conditions”, said Ms. Cenalmor-Rejas.

Coordinating with the authorities and shored up by partners, UNHCR is providing information and legal counselling to the newly arrived Venezuelans, along with food, cash assistance, fuel vouchers, medical care, emergency shelter, and basic relief items – such as blankets and winter clothes.

International support ‘crucial’​

Since the beginning of the year, UNHCR has assisted 20,000 refugees and migrants from Venezuela in the northern regions of Chile.

And it is increasing its staffing and partners at the northern border, aiming to reach more of the vulnerable refugees.

To assist in controlling COVID-19, the UN refugee agency is also working with local and national authorities to set up a centre in the town of Iquique, where new arrivals will undergo the required quarantine in safe and dignified conditions.

In parallel, anticipating that Venezuelans will start looking for opportunities in other parts of the country, during 2021, UNHCR strengthened its collaboration with five partners to distribute assistance in cities in southern Chile.

“UNHCR, as part of the inter-agency response, is committed to offering relief to those in need and the communities welcoming them”, said Ms. Cenalmor-Rejas. “However, timely support by the international community is crucial for us to continue expanding our programmes”.

Venezuelan migrants

Chile is currently home to an estimated 448,100 refugees and migrants from Venezuela, not counting the thousands who have entered the country through irregular border crossings.

In 2022, UNHCR will need a total of $20.3 million to ensure adequate humanitarian assistance and support Venezuelan communities to become self-reliant across the country.