‘Overwhelming’: Norwegian Refugee Council urges Venezuela exodus aid

Bogota: The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council says the world is not doing enough to help Colombia respond to the influx of migrants from neighbouring Venezuela.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the humanitarian group, said he was concerned about a dangerous mix of escalating violence within Colombia combined with the arrival of thousands of migrants fleeing precarious economic conditions in Venezuela.

"The crisis is tremendous, it's overwhelming," he said during a visit to the border dividing Colombia and Venezuela. "The humanitarian groups are overstretched and underfunded and so are all of the government institutions."

A man wearing a shirt that reads in Spanish “Venezuela. Strength and faith.” links arms with others at an opposition rally in Caracas on Tuesday.Credit:AP

More than 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled their nation's economic and humanitarian crisis in recent years, with nearly 2 million arriving in Colombia, which is struggling to provide them jobs, shelter, healthcare and social services.

Egeland urged the international community to step up in providing more aid while praising Colombia for hosting so many in need.

The crisis in Venezuela, however, continues unabated.

On Tuesday, security forces used teargas to stop protesters led by US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido from marching on the national legislature.

People were hit with tear gas during an opposition march in Caracas on Tuesday.Credit:AP

The march, attended by several thousand opposition demonstrators, advanced only a few blocks towards the congress in downtown Caracas before a phalanx of riot police barricaded the road and began firing teargas to disperse the crowd.

"It once again demonstrates the totalitarian nature of this regime," said lawmaker and Guaido supporter Williams Davila, his face and eyes red from the teargas.

Opposition legislators later held an extramural session in the fashionable Las Mercedes district nearby, setting up chairs on the neighbourhood's main avenue and hanging a large Venezuelan flag as a backdrop.

"We are a powerful majority that can change this country," said Guaido during the session. "The dictatorship thinks it can take us on, that it can keep us quiet."

A riot police officer takes a photo while blocking an opposition march in Caracas on Tuesday.Credit:AP

Guaido for weeks had urged Venezuelans to join the march as a way of reviving street protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who the United States has sought to oust through economic sanctions. The protests surged in 2019 as the caravan of migrants picked up pace towards neighbouring countries and the US. But the protests have waned as the ruling Socialist Party has clung to power.

Tuesday's march was the opposition's first since Guaido returned last month from a diplomatic tour that included a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. It marked another test of Guaido's capacity to mobilise supporters, who are increasingly weary with his inability to oust Maduro despite a broad sanctions program, support from dozens of countries including Australia and Venezuela's long-running economic crisis.

Venezuelan migrants eat at a migrant shelter near Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela last year. The shelter serves about 4500 free lunches daily.Credit:AP

After the rally, officers from an elite Venezuelan police unit, the Special Action Force, raided a hotel in Caracas and detained three opposition members staying there, according to the congress Twitter account. Two of the lawmakers were released later that evening, while they said the other remained detained.

One of the released lawmakers, Zandra Castilla, told reporters outside the hotel that officers threatened them, confiscated their phones and told them "here you can't speak bad about Maduro".

The Information Ministry did not return a request to comment.

Maduro's government held its own separate rallies in downtown Caracas that were attended by hundreds of red-shirted supporters.

"I don't miss a single march, even if I'm tired or sick," said Maria Isabel Luna, 62.

A group of legislators backed by the Socialist Party installed themselves as leaders of congress in January after troops blocked Guaido from attending a session in which he was expected to be elected to a second term as assembly head.

Opposition lawmakers later re-elected Guaido, but they have been largely unable to meet at the legislative palace, once home to the only branch of government not controlled by Maduro.

More than 50 countries last year recognised Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president following Maduro's disputed 2018 re-election, which was widely dismissed as fraudulent.

The country is slated to hold parliamentary elections later this year, but the opposition has not determined if it will participate due to concerns over free and fair conditions.

AP, Reuters

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