A political and economic crisis in Venezuela has driven hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in recent months. According to official UN figures, more than 600,000 Venezuelans had fled to Colombia by the end of 2017. Every day they are joined by around 3,000 more. Unofficial estimates put the current total number of refugees from Venezuela in Colombia at significantly higher than one million.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Jelena Kaifenheim, Malteser International America’s Latin America Coordinator. “Neither local official bodies nor the local population are cut out to deal with a refugee movement of this kind.”

The situation is growing worse by the day in the impoverished border regions of the La Guajira department, where Malteser International Americas has been working to help local Colombian inhabitants for several years. Many of the arriving Venezuelans are sick and undernourished. Only a few have received the full range of vaccinations, raising the prospect of the spread of illnesses, such as measles and diphtheria.

“I was on the ground to assess the situation just over two weeks ago, and the current conditions for the refugees are appalling. Families are being forced to sleep in parks and open spaces. Their distress is palpable. Pregnant women and newborns are not receiving medical attention. Many of them are undernourished. Fast action is needed to help these people,” said Kaifenheim.

Malteser International Americas is now beginning to provide basic medical services in cooperation with local officials for refugees in Riohacha and in neighboring villages in the department of La Guajira. Mobile health teams will provide medical care, distribute hygiene materials, and perform vaccinations. Food will be given to undernourished children and pregnant women.

Malteser International Americas has been working in close cooperation with the local association of the Order of Malta in Colombia for around three years. Its work is focused on rural development and improving access to local healthcare.

To support the refugee relief efforts, please visit: www.orderofmaltarelief.org.