CUCUTA, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Outside a church in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, Martha Carbajalino flips nervously through a pile of papers in her hands, standing with dozens of other migrant Venezuelan parents hoping to enroll their undocumented children into school.
Like some 1.5 million other people in the last two years, Carbajalino, 46, fled the hunger and violence of economic collapse and a political crisis in Venezuela.
A month ago she, along with her son and her mother, disabled by a stroke, crossed the border to scrape a living in Cucuta, a city receiving many of the Venezuelans leaving their homeland.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has described the situation in Venezuela, with its hyperinflation and severe recession, as a “humanitarian crisis.” Colombia was spending millions of dollars to support the migrants, he said during a recent visit to the border.
Carbajalino hopes to get Luis Angel, her 7-year-old son who likes to draw robots, into school, but she cannot figure out how.
“I knock on doors, and no one opens for me,” she said through tears outside offices of the Scalabrini International Migration Network, a Catholic organization for migrant aid.
“I don’t have anywhere to go and here, they say, they give help,” Carbajalino said.
NOT GOING TO SCHOOL
Thousands of Venezuelan children in Cucuta are not going to school, spending their days alone, following their parents, selling items on the streets or begging.
Every day more arrive. About 40,000 Venezuelans were legally entering Colombia each month at the end of 2017, according to Colombian authorities, with thousands more thought to enter illegally.
All along the Venezuelan border, towns are struggling to cope. Last week, leaders of Brazil’s state of Roraima asked the Supreme Court for permission to close its border temporarily to halt the mass arrival.
While many Venezuelans with the means to migrate legally fled years ago, those leaving today are often seeking jobs to send money to families back home. Few seek political asylum.
Aid groups and authorities warn poverty plus lack of schooling or daily supervision will push children into the ranks of Colombia’s organized crime groups.
“If you don’t educate a child, you can’t correct that. You totally change the trajectory of their life,” said Yadira Galeano, Norwegian Refugee Council manager for Colombia’s border areas.
“Many kids end up being easy subjects for criminal or armed groups.”
In January, Colombia enacted a national decree allowing all foreign children to register and attend school while they sort out their documents and legal status.
But for children of undocumented Venezuelans, getting passports is virtually impossible.
“We know that Venezuela isn’t helping at all. They aren’t giving out passports,” said Jonathan Mejia, the official in charge of school enrolment in Cucuta, a city of about 670,000 people.
“We need support from the national government in this process of legalization of documents,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Colombia has borne the brunt of the exodus of Venezuelans fleeing their once prosperous nation – the number living within its borders jumped by 62 percent in the second half of last year to more than 550,000.
In Cucuta, nearly 4,000 foreign students, mostly Venezuelans, have registered for school. But no one knows how many children of struggling families remain out of school, according to Father Francesco Bortignon, director of the local Scalabrini mission.
“School is not a priority,” the priest said. “The priority is food.”
Cesar Gil, 51, sells coffee from a streetcart with his four young children in tow.
On a typical day, they leave their rented room before dawn and return after dark with earnings of about $5. They survive on fried potatoes and corn cakes.
Gil had enrolled his children, all undocumented, in school in Cucuta.
But the principal called police a week later when Gil was late to pick them up at the end of the day.
“They do it because we are Venezuelans,” Gil said. Fearing trouble with authorities, he withdrew his children from school.
Venezuelans in the schools are stretching Cucuta’s resources and more funds are needed from the national government to hire teachers, according to Mejia.
Some of the city’s 59 schools have taken more than 220 new students without adding teachers, Mejia said.
Some locals have stepped in, such as three police officers who volunteered to teach two weekly classes.
“If they don’t study, it’s more likely they end up as delinquents in the street,” said Jessica Sepulveda, communications officer with the Cucuta police.
“WITHOUT PENCIL OR PAPER”
In the hills outside Cucuta, about 630 students attend a six-classroom school in two daily shifts. Three years ago there were 400.
The area is dotted with concrete and wood homes filled with Venezuelan families. Some live in meager shelters of scavenged materials.
“They arrive here without anything, without pencil or paper,” said Arley Laguado, head of the Juan Bautista primary school, which is part of the Scalabrini mission.
“They live between four sticks and a green tarp with six people.”
Yadira Albernia, the school secretary who interviews new families, said many arriving students lag their Colombian peers in education.
One 9-year-old Venezuelan arrived having never been in school, and a 12-year-old tested at the level of a 7-year-old, Albernia said.
The school, which draws public funds from Colombia and organizations including the World Food Program and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, donates uniforms to most new arrivals.
The school also provides a hot meal each day, and teachers donate notebooks and supplies.
The Juan Bautista school said it had opted to accept every student in the area.
But Laguado, the school’s head, said the school can only stretch so far. Already, classrooms meant for 30 children hold 40.
“We open our doors to everyone,” Laguado said. “But it will happen that we arrive at a moment when we say there is no more space.”