CUCUTA, Colombia (CNS) — Bishops, Catholic aid groups and representatives of the Holy See met on the border between Colombia and Venezuela in late January to review how the church has been helping thousands of people who are leaving Venezuela each day in desperate conditions.
The “Charity on the Border” conference was organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. Bishops from Colombia and Venezuela attended as well as the Vatican’s ambassadors to both countries.
“One of the challenges we spoke about is how to better share information about what different church agencies are doing” for the refugees, said Janeth Marquez, director of Caritas Venezuela.
“When we have people migrating from our communities for example, we would like to share more information with them about the pastoral services that they can find on their route, in other countries. That way we can stop people from falling in the hands of human traffickers.”
The United Nations says about 4.5 million people have left Venezuela since 2015 to escape hyperinflation, high crime levels, food shortages and salaries that are lower than $10 per month.
Venezuelan migrants and refugees have ended up mostly in nearby countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, where governments have struggled to provide them with basic services. Dozens of church groups in these countries have responded to the crisis by providing the most vulnerable Venezuelans with things like food, accommodation and legal assistance.
Some of these groups are now getting help from donors in Europe and the United States, including Catholic agencies.
But as aid efforts for Venezuelan refugees multiply, there is also a greater need for coordination.
In a message sent to conference participants, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, proposed that church groups working on the Venezuela crisis create an online platform through which they can share information on the services they provide to refugees.
Cardinal Turkson said this model was implemented by church groups working in the Middle East with Syrian refugees and helped donors to “better channel resources.”
“The crisis in Venezuela is one of the worst in recent decades, and there are few signs that it will stop in the near future,” Cardinal Turkson wrote. “But the bravery and charity (of church groups) is helping people to not lose faith and to not resign themselves to lives of violence and desperation.”
Marquez said Caritas Venezuela has actually grown as Venezuela’s economic and political crisis lingers on, because Catholics in that country are “getting together” to help each other with things like nutrition. She said Caritas Venezuela has gone from 40 branches in Venezuelan parishes to more than 500 in the past five years.
“We used to focus on educational programs,” she said, “but now we do much more relief work.”
That includes organizing food pantries, providing the poorest people with cash transfers and helping children whose parents have migrated to other countries and left them with their ailing grandparents.
“It’s no longer just the rich trying to help the poor in Venezuela,” Marquez said, “but the poor pulling together to help each other.”
Marquez mentioned that another issue discussed at the Vatican-sponsored meeting was how to provide migrants with spiritual support as they make the chaotic transition into a new country. That includes finding ways for migrants to feel welcome at parishes once they arrive in a new city.
“As aid groups we have specialized in handing out food, health kits, even clothes” to migrants making long journeys on foot across South America, Marquez said. “But we have also realized that people need emotional and spiritual support, because many are losing hope.”