UN official warns of humanitarian 'catastrophe' in Venezuela

2018-03-13 16:41
Venezuelan citizens cross the International Simon Bolivar bridge into the Colombia. (Fernando Vergara, AP, file)

Venezuelan citizens cross the International Simon Bolivar bridge into the Colombia. (Fernando Vergara, AP, file)

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Bogota - Colombia urgently needs international help as it struggles with a humanitarian "catastrophe" along its border caused by a flood of Venezuelan migrants driven from their homes by hunger, a senior UN official said on Monday.

David Beasley, director of the World Food Programme, said the harrowing reports he heard from Venezuelan migrants makes raising awareness of the crisis an urgent priority.

"This could turn into an absolute disaster in unprecedented proportions for the Western Hemisphere," Beasley said in an interview following a two-day visit to talk with migrants in the Colombian border city of Cucuta.

"I asked, 'Why are you here?', and the answer people gave me was: 'We don't have any food.' And they said: 'Even if we had money, there's no food,'" Beasley recounted.

"I don't think people around the world realise how bad the situation is and how much worse it could very well be."

Shortages of food

READ: Venezuela's woes spread to zoos as animals feed on each other

As hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine batter Venezuela, rising numbers of its people are joining in an exodus that has set off alarms across Latin America.

Independent groups estimate as many as three million to four million Venezuelans have abandoned their homeland in recent years, with several hundred thousand departing in 2017 alone.

Beasley, who discussed the crisis with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, said the ideal approach would have the UN and international agencies attack the problem by working inside Venezuela.

But that is not an option for now, because Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has repeatedly rejected offers of humanitarian aid as a veiled attempt by the US and others to destabilise his socialist government amid calls by the opposition to oust him.

Instead, Beasley is urging the US and other nations to provide financial assistance to Colombia, where the bulk of the Venezuelan migrants are arriving. He said Colombia's government enjoys the confidence of the global community while Maduro's does not.

Since the end of 2017, the Rome-based World Food Programme has helped feed almost 2 000 people in Colombia, working mainly with Roman Catholic charities.

A more robust programme is still in the works, but Beasley said it's likely to focus on pregnant women and children. He said it could include a range of approaches, ranging from cash payments to the delivery of commodities for feeding migrants.

The World Food Programme feeds 80 million people annually around the globe, about two-thirds of them in conflict zones.

Armed conflict

It has been present in Colombia for years, focused on feeding those displaced by the country's half-century guerrilla conflict that is now winding down. It is working with the government to help meet its goal of eradicating malnourishment by 2030.

Venezuela's problems aren't being driven by armed conflict, but the crisis has the potential to get a lot worse, Beasely said. He noted the food emergency in Syria started off as a trickle but now demands UN assistance to help feed six million people a day in a country with a smaller population than Venezuela.

"Colombia has made so much progress in the past many years with peace and the last thing it needs now is for all that success to be undone," said Beasley, a former governor of the US state of South Carolina.

"So I will be expressing to other nations the severity of this crisis and why they must come to help the Colombian people immediately."

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Read more on:    un  |  venezuela  |  refugees  |  migrants

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