Cuenca social service officials say they are maxed out in terms of handling the continuing flow of Venezuelan refugees into the city.
Municipal councilman Iván Abril, who chairs the Immigration Committee of the Cantonal Council, says that a growing number of refugees are sleeping on city streets, under bridges and along the banks of rivers. “We are over-stressed in our ability to provide services to these people and we desperately need help from churches and private organizations,” he says.
He worries that Peru’s recent decision to place more restrictions on Venezuelans entering that country will boost the refugee population in Cuenca and other Ecuadorian cities. “The best estimates we have is that there are about 5,000 currently in Cuenca and that number is growing,” Abril says.
In addition to Venezuelans, Abril says that more Colombians are arriving in Cuenca, fleeing growing drug violence in the southern region of that country.
According to the city’s Proyecto Vida, there are currently 31 public and private services that assist indigent refugees, including those that provide overnight accommodations, food, clothing and special care for children, the elderly and the disabled.
Posada San Francisco, just off San Francisco Plaza, has told city officials it cannot handle any more arrivals at its overnight shelter. “We are already over our capacity of 100 and are turning families away,” one volunteer said Monday. “It breaks our hearts because we know these people will be sleeping outside on these cold nights but we have no choice.”
Paúl Delgado, commander of the Citizen Guard, reports many cases of people living in parks, under bridges and along river banks. “There are several dozen families camping in the Patrimonial Cemetery and in area around Tres Puentes,” he says. “There are others staying on the streets near Posada San Francisco in hopes that they can gain entry.”
Other services, including three that provide meals to refugees, including one sponsored by expats, say they are also working at capacity.
Delgado says that his officers are warning beggars on historic district streets that they are engaged in illegal activity, sometimes asking them to leave. “The beggars are sold candy and money by an organized group of Venezuelans and are trained how to beg pedestrians for money. We detained several of the organizers but the practice continues,” he says. “The beggars are encouraged to borrow or rent children from other refugees if they don’t have their own to increase the appeal.”
Delgado adds: “In most cases, those begging need money but they are being manipulated for profit by unethical people. It is a sad situation.”
In the appeal for community help, Abril and other commissioners say they have had some success. “We have some commitments but these need to be turned into action,” he says.