On any given afternoon in Palmira, Colombia, one can expect to encounter the regular bustling activity found in a typical city center: commuters making their daily route, professionals on their lunch break, store owners setting up shop. Due to a shortage of jobs in the city, there are also a regular cast of men and women who come to the main square each day in order to socialize or beg for change; some dart into traffic to wash car windows at busy intersections in the hopes of a few coins. Amid this backdrop of city life, however, Colombia has recently seen an increase in workers of a different kind: Venezuelan prostitutes.
That thousands of Venezuelans are flooding into Colombia should come as no surprise. Nicolás Maduro’s socialist policies have wreaked havoc on his country’s economy. Trading Economics, looking at the Central Bank of Venezuela, predicts that inflation rates will soar to about 1,000 percent by the end of the year. As naturally follows such an economic upheaval, the result has been shortages in supplies, starvation, and riots in the streets. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many people have decided to seek better living conditions elsewhere; in Colombia alone UNHCR puts the number around 300,000, while the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia puts the number closer to 1.2 million.
I got to visit Palmira for two weeks this summer, during which my hosts mentioned the Venezuelan immigration crisis multiple times. “Our people are already having difficulty making a living to feed their families. The jobs aren’t there. And now there is more competition because of all the people coming from Venezuela. People are starting to leave here too,” mused a new friend over lunch. Her mother had recently moved to Spain in the search of a job. Uprooting her life, leaving her family, and traveling internationally was more cost-efficient than waiting for an opportunity in the city; with more immigrants arriving each day, it only becomes harder for both Colombians and Venezuelans to get by.
That being said, some Venezuelan women are forced into other ways of making their living. Prostitution is legal in both Venezuela and Colombia, and in April of 2017, the Colombian constitutional court ruled that sex workers could receive visas to stay in the country. Originally, the growing sex trade took place mostly in border towns, with Venezuelan workers making a daily commute to and from Colombia each day. Palmira is on the far western side of the country, however, surrounded by mountains and far from the border to Venezuela. Yet even there, the immigrant-run sex trade has grown over the past several months.
The overall attitude of the locals toward the victims of the Venezuelan dominant-party system is not resentful, but sympathetic. While views towards prostitution and sex work are more relaxed in Colombia due to its legalization, my hosts still recognized the tragedy of an entire country struggling to survive. Venezuela recently published its newly formulated “rabbit plan” in which citizens are encouraged to breed rabbits for food. Other suggestions include growing vegetables on rooftops or balconies; locals know they many not find food in any other way. “Venezuelan immigrants used to come over and start work in the medical or beauty professions. We had a lot of Venezuelan doctors several years ago. You’re not going to see that anymore. In Palmira, they mostly work as prostitutes or street vendors,” my hostess informed me. But although she, and many other locals, look to the sex workers with pity, this is not the case across the board.
ASMUBULI, a general assembly of organizations committed to representing and protecting sex workers, reports an increase in police violence and abuse toward sex workers. “[The sex workers’] calls have been continuous due to the multiple facts of violation of rights of which they are victims by members of the police,” they wrote in a September article. “Among the main complaints made by the partners are the collection of unjustified fines for them to work, physical violence and threats of future aggressions.” ASMUBULI estimates there are around 4,500 Venezuelan sex workers currently working within Colombia, with numbers continuing to grow as living in Venezuela becomes increasingly less sustainable. If their desperation makes them targets for abuse, they may be forced into even more compromising situations with little hope for improved conditions.
Police are not the only individuals guilty of taking advantage of Venezuelan immigrants, though. Some workers are enticed by the promise of a great job and salary, only to become trapped in inhumane working conditions with no means of escape. Employers have been known to prohibit workers from leaving, withhold pay, and even steal workers’ travel documents. In short, Venezuelan immigrants are at a high risk for enslavement. For undocumented workers, the threat is even more serious.
To add to the tragedy, these are the stories of individuals living in Colombia, where the stable government serves as a buffer against the more serious dangers that Venezuelans face in their home country. There, the government is doubling down on its revolutionary socialist agenda despite the misery it has caused its people. But the negative effects of Nicolás Maduro’s policies do not stop at Venezuela’s borders. The dangers of Venezuela’s collapse are now spilling over into neighboring countries
Photo: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights