How the city of Bogota is fighting the growing phenomenon of Venezuelan refugee children

(NEW YORK) — On a sunny Monday in January, Bárbara Méndez arrived at daycare center El Centro Abrazar in Bogotá, Colombia, to drop off her 2-year-old son Michal before heading to work. She had only been in the country for a little over two weeks and was doing her best to make a life for herself. Like many of the 1.6 million Venezuelan migrants who have arrived in recent years, she saw few opportunities back home.

“In Colombia there are more opportunities and more ways to get ahead. It’s complicated in Venezuela,” she said. “You work a week just to eat for half a day. I had to make a change.”

Many fleeing political and economic instability in Venezuela arrive with few resources. An estimated 60% lack a regular migration status, leaving them without access to the labor market and health care system, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. As a result, many get by working in the informal market, selling food and goods on street corners or in busy plazas and living on what they earn day-to-day.

Some 14% of Venezuelans arriving in Colombia rely entirely on begging to sustain themselves, according to UNHCR. Some bring their children with them as a means of generating greater empathy and therefore, more funds.

In the past year, Colombian media have revealed that Venezuelan families have been preyed on by organized crime rings, which offer desperate parents money to rent out their children, including babies, lending them to others who hope to earn more money by having a small child with them.

“There has been an increase in reports of people in possible situations of labor exploitation, as well as events of children being ’employed’ as in the cases of ‘renting’ babies for begging purposes,” Mario Gómez, Colombia’s delegate prosecutor for children and adolescents, said in a statement.

The number of such cases has been especially high in the capital city of Bogotá, he added.

Taking in the gravity of the situation, last summer the city of Bogotá began a campaign to alert citizens to the growing problem of child begging and the services available to children and their parents who either beg or work on the informal market to make a living.

The city designated teams to locate children begging on the streets and direct their families to information about city resources available to them. Many have been referred to the social services center, El Centro Abrazar, which functions as a daycare center specifically for Venezuelan migrant children who do not otherwise have a safe place to stay while their parents work. It opened last August in a former kindergarten building with ample space for the 120 children who range in age from babies to pre-teens.

The center’s administrator, Vanessa Méndez Cartagena, tries to convince parents why it is preferable for their children to be off the streets while they sell.

“Many families arrive with the mentality of ‘it’s better I take the child in the street because I’ll make 80 thousand (roughly $20) if I have him with me,"” she said. “But when they come here they realize that the extra money they can earn is not worthwhile. Here they find support and receive necessary attention, food, games, health check-ups and connections to other services in the district.”

When ABC News visited in January, parents were dropping off their children before heading to work. Upstairs, it was meal time, and a group of young children sitting in high-chairs was chowing down on breakfast. Three meals a day provided by the center are critical, particularly for those who have recently arrived. As many as 13% of children in Venezuela have suffered from malnutrition in recent years due to widespread food shortages, according to UNICEF.

In an adjacent room, teacher Diana Colorado was leading a group of 4 and 5-year-olds building structures out of colorful wooden blocks.

“We try to make sure that they have fun, that they can be children who develop normally,” she told ABC News.

For Colorado, it is important that they get away from the often harsh reality of life as an undocumented migrant.

“We want them to become children again who can develop normally,” she said. “We have little ones, 3-year-olds, tell us, ‘Teacher, we went out, we went to sell and then the police arrived.’ We tell them and their parents that it is totally necessary that they come every day, they shouldn’t be out on the street.”

Colorado is part of a team of 20 people, ranging from child psychologists, educators and nutrition specialists who are on call to provide the services these children might need from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

“It’s not only the child who is addressed here, but the whole family, and this creates a lot of stability for them,” said Méndez Cartagena.

Earlier that morning, Génesis Sequera dropped off her son, Luis Alejandro, before going to sell mints and peanuts on the streets of Bogotá. She’s been in the country for two months, but things are going smoothly after a friend told her about El Centro Abrazar.

“On the avenue where I work, there are people who look at me badly, but I just smile at them,” she said. “I’ve been here for two months and I’ve done well, at the center everything is excellent, from the coordinator to the food service, the psychologist and the lawyer.”

With the help of the center’s lawyer, Sequera was able to put in a formal request for a special stay permit and help her son get a place in a kindergarten, which in Colombia is free of charge for Venezuelan migrant children.

When children arrive for the first time, they are registered and undergo a health check.

“This first meeting tells us the conditions in which the whole family arrives, and from here we start the opening up to the other components and to the services of the second floor,” explained Méndez Cartagena. She said some lack the necessary vaccinations due to the scarcity of medical supplies in Venezuela, so the staff at the center connects them with local hospitals.

Yet one location is hardly enough to service a city of over 7 million inhabitants. The center is meant to be the first of many.

“The idea is that there will be more centers opened like these,” according to Xinia Navarro, the city’s secretary for social integration who came into office in January along with the city’s left-wing Mayor Claudia López.

Even though Bogotá is under strict lockdown, the center’s staff still cares for 15 children daily, said Gabriel Barrera, a spokesperson for the center.

He added, “This center is not going to stop operating, and the issue of immigration is not going to stop after the coronavirus pandemic ends.”

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