Refugees flood into Brazil

Hungry and destitute, tens of thousands of victims of Venezuela's unrelenting political and economic crisis are trying their luck in Brazil — a country where they do not speak the language, conditions are often poor and there are few border towns to receive them.

Many arrive weak from hunger and with no money for a hotel, food or the $9 bus ride to Boa Vista, the capital of the Brazilian state of Roraima, known in Venezuelan circles as a place that offers three meals a day. In dozens of interviews over four days, many said they had not had more than one meal a day for the last year.

Some wore baggy clothes, had emaciated faces and complained of medical issues ranging from children with measles to diabetics with no insulin.

Kritce Montero tried to shush 6-month-old Hector, who cried from hunger even after breast-feeding while his family and several hundred other Venezuelans waited to be processed at the border.

Montero, who said she lost 57 pounds (26 kilograms) the last year from eating just one meal a day, travelled with Hector and her 7-year-old daughter 18 hours by bus from Maturin, a city in northeast Venezuela. After spending the night sleeping on the ground in Pacaraima, a dusty border town in the Amazon, they took another bus 130 miles (210 kilometres) to Boa Vista.

"We are desperate. We could no longer buy food," said 33-year-old Montero, adding it had been months since Hector had any formula or diapers.

While in recent years millions of Venezuelans have immigrated, until recently Brazil received relatively few of them. Hundreds of thousands have gone to Colombia, but authorities there and elsewhere in South America are tightening their borders.

Portuguese-speaking Brazil has become the latest alternative for Venezuelans. But they are not finding much comfort there.

On a recent day, Militza DonQuis, 38, sat under a tree on the side of the main road in Pacaraima. In the two months since she and her husband arrived from Puerto Cabello, they have not been able to find work. With no money, they can't take the bus to Boa Vista, so they sleep on the ground and scrounge for food during the day.

"This is horrible," said DonQuis through tears, adding that in two months she had been unable to send money home to her children, ages 12 and 14, who she left with a sister.

With no money for a bus, Jose Guillen, 48, and wife July Bascelta, 44, decided to begin the journey to Boa Vista at night on foot, setting off with 9-year-old twins Angel and Ashley along a road surrounded by forest.

"God will provide," said Guillen when asked how the family would eat during a trip that can take five days.

After walking 4 miles (6 kilometres), a Brazilian driver stopped agreed to give them a lift to Boa Vista, where the situation is arguably more desperate. Thousands of Venezuelans are living in the streets. They sleep in tents and on benches in central squares, have taken over abandoned buildings and cram dozens of people into small apartments.

The largest of three shelters in the city, Tancredo, has 700 people despite being equipped for 200. Half-naked children roam the former gymnasium while groups of men and women chat about their hopes for finding work and worry about the families they left in Venezuela.

Charlie Ivan Delgado, 30, said he came to Brazil several months ago with hopes of earning enough money so he and his high school sweetheart could finally afford a wedding. But each time he called home to El Tigre, he would hear the situation was getting worse, that their three children, ages 9, 5 and 1, were always hungry. So he decided to abandon wedding plans and bring his family.

"Kids in Venezuela today don't think about playing with their friends or what they might study" in the university, said Delgado, sitting with his children and partner in a tent. "It's more, 'What am I going to eat today?"

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