Most of those Venezuelan families huddled on Cuenca sidewalks are not begging for their next meal, according to the city’s Social Development Office. In many cases, a spokesman for the office says, adults are renting the children who sit or sleep beside them.
“The street begging on sidewalks and at intersections has become much worse in recent weeks although we do not see an increase in the number of Venezuelan refugees in Cuenca,” says Cristian Moreno who coordinates the Life Project that assists refugees for the development office.
In many cases, the begging is a business run by people attempting to take advantage of human tragedy, he says. “The beggars are making $40 to $50 during four-hour shifts and they are renting the children of other refugees and asking the kids to look hungry. There are managers who sell candy and Bolivars [Venezuelan currency] and teach the beggars what to say for the most profit,” Moreno says. “We need to get the word out to the public about what is going on and ask people not to participate in the scam.”
Of greatest concern, Moreno says, is the possible exploitation of children, which is a crime. “The Cantonal Board for Rights Protection is currently investigating the situation and will soon file complaints against adults it believes are engaged in exploitation.”
In all, Moreno believes that between 40 and 50 “so-called families” are involved in what he calls “begging for profit.” He adds that they concentrate on the sidewalks of the historic district as well at several busy intersections near the city center.
The city operates several programs to help the Venezuelans, Moreno says. “There are options for meals and lodging, from both public and private sources, and we ask people to refer the beggars to these services.”
He adds: “If Cuencanos want to help, they can deliver food, clothes in good condition, vitamins or cleaning materials to the Posada San Francisco, Hogar Cristo Rey or the offices of Proyecto Vida at Rafael María Arízaga and Tomás Ordóñez.”
Cuenca’s foreign affairs office estimates that there are between 3,000 and 4,000 Venezuelan refugees living in Cuenca. About 1,500 have legal residency status.