Latin America – September 27 2018

Need for care grows as displacement continues

Children face the risk of abuse, abandonment and exploitation as more Venezuelans leave for neighbouring countries

SOS Children’s Villages has started emergency programmes in two countries directly affected by the situation in Venezuela, but more help is needed to address the needs of children, says Fabiola Flores, International Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Region of SOS Children’s Villages.

“The situation is getting political attention, but not humanitarian attention,” says Ms Flores. “This is a regional problem, and so far not enough international attention is being paid to it. It really is a challenging situation.”

An estimated 2.3 million people have left Venezuela over the past three years. But in a region where cross-border movement has historically been common, the unofficial estimates are far higher.

SOS Children’s Villages has launched emergency programmes in Brazil and Colombia to help displaced Venezuelan children and families. Colombia is home to more than 1 million Venezuelans, while upwards of 70,000 people have crossed into Brazil’s northern Roraima state over the past year.

Ms Flores talks about the impact of the situation in the region and points to risks for children.

What are the main risks to children in this situation?

Many families are now trapped at the border because neighbouring countries are no longer allowing people to cross. There are large numbers of people living in unhealthy and crowded living conditions.

In these situations, children are at risk of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. They also are at risk of being exploited and forced in labour. Children have dropped out of school or have no access to education and, if this goes on long enough, they may not return to their studies.

Another major concern we have is that parents are leaving their children behind – sometimes abandoned, sometimes left with relatives – so they can find ways to support themselves in other countries. Sometimes the people who are taking care of the children are themselves no longer able to support them. Children may leave to try to find their parents, and they are stuck at the border or unable to find their parents. They are in a very difficult situation and exposed to the risks I mentioned above as well as to the psychological consequences of separation. The children who are left behind or move to another country are also at a risk of losing their identity and their sense of belonging.

The situation must be very desperate if parents are choosing to leave their children behind.

The situation is desperate. People do not have enough food for their families. Some have left everything they had because the situation became unbearable.

Are the host countries equipped for this kind of emergency?

With the increase of people crossing borders, the access to basic serves is one of the consequences. All of these countries have limited resources and were are already seeing problems in some host communities with xenophobia. Some of these countries do not recognise the severity of the situation and they are not providing emergency services. But with the increase of people crossing borders, the access to basic serves increasingly will be affected.

Are host communities making provisions so these children can attend school?

Most education systems in Latin American countries ensure access to primary education. So in general, these children should not have problems getting into school. But in reality, there are also problems because in many cases the schools require that children have a certificate from their previous school. If you don’t have the certificate or a birth certificate, some schools will not accept the children. Others will make an exception, but my guess is that in many cases parents will have trouble getting their children into schools.

What should be the priorities when it comes to helping children in the host countries?

Most of the existing relief programmes are providing some humanitarian assistance – food, health and shelter. But there are not enough mental health programmes to care for the children in these situations. They are exposed to traumatic events and need mental health support. These problems are harder to detect and require specialised care because the impact of this kind of situation is long-term. In many refugee and displacement emergencies like this, we tend to forget the mental health and psychological consequences. We must address the immediate needs, like food, health care and shelter, but we also must be prepared to address the mental health needs.

[Above] Fabiola Flores is the International Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Region of SOS Children’s Villages International. Photo by José Gallo [Top photo] SOS Children’s Villages Brazil is mobilising to help children and families from Venezuela who have sought refuge in the country. Some families will be housed at SOS Children’s Villages, like this one at Igarassu. Photo by Livia Neves 

Background on the emergency responses in Brazil and Colombia

SOS Children’s Villages Brazil offers accommodation and support in the northern municipalities of Boa Vista and Pacaraima. The organisation is providing residents of two shelters with vocational and local language courses, referrals to the social assistance network, and financial support to families. An estimated 1,600 people will be helped through this intervention. SOS Children’s Villages Brazil is also supporting refugees by providing at least two SOS homes for Venezuelan families at the Goioêre and Igarassu Villages. The goal is to assist 600 people in 30 households for up to six months.

SOS Children’s Villages Colombia supports 300 children and young people and 300 families living in the northern La Guajira region that borders Venezuela. The emergency programmes seeks to protect children and adolescents from risks such as recruitment, gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, abuse and violence.