Crisis looms with mass evictions of Venezuelans during coronavirus quarantine
Migrants and vulnerable informal workers are still being forced out of rooms for rent in downtown Bogotá, families reported today, even after city authorities moved to prohibit landlords from putting families on the street during the coronavirus crisis.
Mass illegal evictions – which are causing a sanitary crisis in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak – are happening in the inner city and poor barrios where many of the 350,000 Venezuelan migrants in Colombia’s capital have settled in recent years after fleeing turmoil in their home country.
“The authorities can create rules – but the hostel owners can still do what they want,” Venezuelan mother Rosa Barreto told The Bogotá Post. She had spent the night on the streets with families and small children after being thrown out of lodgings the day before.
“We weren’t behind with the rent, but the owner told us to leave. Now we’ve nowhere to go.”
Venezuelan migrants face severe hardships during the coronavirus quarantine because 80% make a living through selling on the street. With lockdown they are forced to stay inside, creating a vicious circle of poverty and eviction that ironically puts them back on the street again.
Trapped by the quarantine
The situation has been worsened by the closing of charity shelters as part of the coronavirus containment, district council staff told The Bogotá Post. Added to that, the transport shutdown has trapped migrants in Bogotá who would otherwise might be heading home to Venezuela to ride out the coronavirus crisis there.
The problem equally affects many Colombians in the capital: Bogotá has an estimated 170,000 street sellers and 9,000 street people living precariously. Many rely on crowded hostels and pagadiarios, the ‘pay per day’ flophouses where residents must scrape together the cash up front to secure a bed for the night.
Sleeping rough is a likelihood facing Don Gabriel. The former farm worker fled massacres in Arauca in 2004 to seek refuge on the streets of Bogotá and told us his story as part of our special on homelessness in Bogotá in 2017.
When we caught up with Don Gabriel in La Soledad last week, the 80-year-old recycler was struggling to find cash to pay the hostel.
“There’s not much material to recycle – people aren’t using so much – and the people who give me money to help are not around either.”
He was aware of the coronavirus risk, and how to stay safe, and had soap and water in the hostel, but no guarantee of enough cash to pay the night.
Migrants hardest hit by evictions
Meanwhile city leaders this week rushed in rules to ban evictions of tenants “for failure to pay rent” during the quarantine and froze rents. According to Mayor Claudia López, this Decree 93 had “prevented the evictions of at least 1,500 people living in the pagadiaros in the city centre.”
But migrants we talked to believe the decree could have been counterproductive by panicking hostel owners into ejecting tenants struggling to pay. This week saw a wave of evictions that city authorities seem powerless to prevent and falling hardest on Venezuelan migrants.
In fact, the Secretario de Gobierno was quick to announce that the decree “doesn’t mean that tenants don’t have to pay rent”, though this is not clear to either owners or renters.
Added to that, Venezuelan migrants fall outside the financial subsidies being offered to 350,000 poor families already registered for state support, and which the government is suggesting can ease the wave of evictions.
No money for rent
For her part, the Mayor López robustly has denied accusations of xenophobia against Venezuelan population here: The Bogotá city authority was providing free health, kindergarten, schooling, school lunches among other subsidies for the migrants, she told media today. There was “no money or legal mechanisms to pay their rents as well”.
She announced a plan for the state and UN bodies to provide 25,000 food coupons for migrant families in the coming days. Another scheme is to work with the police to ensure families can “return to their dwellings where they have been illegally evicted”.
But can police really force dwelling owners to re-open their doors to migrants? Probably not. Extra food will be welcome – but hardly replace a room for the night.
As these tensions mount in the city centre, migrants are forced to break the quarantine through lack of choices.
Some are already voting with their feet to make the hard trek north back home to Venezuela – where for the last three years a man-made humanitarian crisis has left millions destitute and hungry.
It’s a tough choice. But for families with small children even that route is closed until the buses run again, says migrant mother Sra Barreto.
“Right now, we want to go home. There’s no way for us to survive here. And right now, no way to leave.”
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