A bus ride from the border region of Arauca to Colombia's capital Bogotá: for many refugees from Venezuela, this is the first big step towards a new life elsewhere. Far away from the deep economic malaise in their homeland. With ZOA's vouchers they can buy a bus ticket en route, which literally takes them further. Some have already completed a long walk in Venezuela upon arrival in Colombia.
Help of their choice for refugees
A ride on the bus, a meal on the way or a new pair of shoes. With ZOA vouchers, Venezuelans can choose to buy what they need themselves. And that really helps.
Vouchers for caminantes in Colombia
'ZOA takes care of transport. That is unique'
They walk hundreds of miles, day in and day out. Or jump on the back of a truck, risking their lives. Often the caminantes – refugees on foot from Venezuela – benefit most from a simple bus ride. ZOA offers them this, on their way to Colombia. It is a unique approach, which is proving very successful.
“ZOA is one of the few organizations in Colombia that has received government permission to arrange transport for caminantes,” says Matilda Kay from ZOA Colombia. “We offer this in a unique way. Not by arranging buses themselves, but by giving the refugees a choice.”
That choice is encrypted in a cash card, with a personal pin code, that caminantes in the Arauca district can receive after registration. Depending on the size of their family, ZOA puts an amount of money on this card that they can spend at a number of registered shops, restaurants or bus companies en route.
“The great thing about this way of working is that the refugees can decide for themselves what they need most,” says Matilda. “In-kind assistance is nice, but not very practical for people fleeing on foot. This gives them more weight to carry around, but does not meet their immediate needs.”
The Colombian government has set a limit on the amount that ZOA and other aid organizations can give to refugees through cash programmes. It comes down to a maximum amount of about 90 euros for a family of four people or more. That is actually far too little, in ZOA's opinion. Food prices have also risen sharply in Colombia recently. “The value of the vouchers should be adjusted accordingly,” says Matilda. “We hope that the government will make this possible.”
Many Venezuelan refugees arriving in Arauca want to move on to the capital Bogotá. From there they travel on to other countries in Latin America, such as Ecuador, Peru or Chile. Or they settle in another part of Colombia.
“Staying in the Arauca area makes little sense,” explains Matilda. There is little employment in the area and it is also unsafe. Early 2022, a conflict between the ELN guerrilla group and FARC dissidents was being fought. About 4,000 people fled. “The irony is that many of these people are Colombians, who previously fled to Venezuela because of the war in their country. The crisis in Venezuela has brought them back. And now they had to leave everything behind again."
ZOA is there for all these people: Colombian and Venezuelan refugees. The number of people fleeing Venezuela continues to grow every day. “At the beginning of the crisis in 2017, it was mainly strong young men who were looking for work in Colombia to support their families,” says Matilda. “But now we see whole generations walking. Grandparents, but also parents with newborn babies. I've seen a lot of babies born along the way."
Men alone sometimes jump on the back of a truck on the route: a perilous gamble. This is not an option for families. And that is why the provision of transport is so important for the refugees. Many people buy a bus ticket first, and spend any remaining money on their cash card on some food or items for the journey.
“The financing of this project will soon come to an end,” says Matilda. “But we would like to continue. We know this works well, and the system is rock solid.” ZOA would also like to set up a cash programme in Norte de Santander – another border department where most refugees from Venezuela enter. And a livelihood project in one of the areas where many caminantes settle. "The need is high. There is so much to do here.”