From Venezuela to Colombia, Yamileth isn’t alone

Migrant families from Venezuela are traveling hundreds of kilometres on foot. But support comes in many forms.

By Alfonso F. Reca
Colombia. A woman feeds her baby in an accommodation centre.
12 June 2019

CÚCUTA, Colombia – Yamileth is exhausted. She’s sitting on a mat on the floor of an accommodation in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta after carrying her two young sons for the past three days. She still has at least another eight days of walking ahead of her, but for tonight at least this improvised mattress will be her bed.

Yamileth, 18, is traveling from Miranda, Venezuela, to the Colombian city of Cali. She’s hoping to finish her studies there, so she can start a new life with her children, Yadnoel and Carlos. It's an arduous journey to be sure, but she's not making it alone.


Colombia. A family stands in an accommodation centre.
Yamileth and her family stand in an accommodation centre in Cúcuta, Colombia.

Traveling with Yamileth and her children, protecting each other from danger, are her mother and her brothers, sisters and two nephews.

Colombia. A woman and her family at an accommodation centre.

In total, there are 15 family members traveling with Yamileth, including nine children and adolescents. While the size of the group has afforded them relative safety, they have not been able to avoid one of the inevitable hazards for those embarking on such journeys: rain.

“Yesterday, it rained so hard that the children got soaked through. They woke up with a cough, but we didn’t have time to go to the health center,” Yamileth says. “We’ll have to wait here until everything gets dry and we can continue our journey.”

Colombia. A woman passes a bag over a wall at an accommodation centre.
Yamileth passes a bag with clothes to a family member at the accommodation centre.

Why has Yamileth settled on Cali, still almost 1,000 kilometres away, as the place to start her new life? Because her father is waiting for them, she explains. Yamileth’s father was the first member of the family to migrate, securing a job collecting coffee beans.

“I want to finish my studies,” she says. “I finished the first year [of college] but I had to stop because my mom didn’t have enough money to pay for [the school supplies] I needed.”

Colombia. A woman sits with her child at an accommodation centre.
Yamileth's sister and her children are also traveling with the family.

The family have gathered at a UNICEF-supported centre on the outskirts of Cúcuta that was established to help migrants traveling by foot. It offers migrants a hot meal and a place to rest, take a shower, spend the night, learn about the route and any potential dangers, and get online. The centre can accommodate 250 people at any one time.

“Actually crossing the border went well because we had all the documentation we needed,” Yamileth says. “The most difficult thing is the walking itself…I just want to get to get to Cali so I can give my children a better life.”

Colombia. A woman plays with two children at an accommodation centre.
Yamileth's family pass some time drawing with their children in the accommodation centre.

Recent months have seen an increase in the number of migrants deciding to travel by foot through Cúcuta, heading either to other cities in Colombia or on to other countries, particularly Ecuador and Peru.

Traveling by foot increases the risks, especially when the route takes migrants through areas impacted by armed groups. Also, many migrants aren’t ready for the sometimes dramatic differences in temperature between the hometowns they left behind in Venezuela and the route they are traveling – it’s not unusual for temperatures to dip from more than 30 °C to close to 0 °C.

“My father begged us to be careful on the road, especially when passing ‘La Nevera’ (3,000 metres above sea level), because of the cold,” Yamileth recalls.

Colombia. A woman feeds her baby at an accommodation centre.
Yamlieth gives one of her children something to eat at the accommodation centre.

UNICEF supports the centre where Yamileth and her family staying in by delivering hygiene kits for children, adolescents and their families, providing psychosocial support and promoting child protection, breastfeeding, sanitation and hygiene. As of late April, at least 327,000 children from Venezuela were living as migrants and refugees in Colombia.