SOPO, Colombia (Reuters) - Carrying small children in their arms or lugging suitcases, the Venezuelan migrants trudged along the shoulder of the highway that runs northeast out of Colombia's capital Bogota, the first steps on a long and unexpected journey home.
Hundreds of poor Venezuelans are heading back to their economically-devastated country on foot - chased out of their adopted home by a coronavirus quarantine that makes it impossible for them to earn a living.
Colombia has become the top destination for Venezuelans fleeing their country's crisis - some 1.8 million have arrived in recent years - but a 19-day nationwide lockdown has halted the informal sector where many work, plunging them into poverty and prompting an abrupt reversal in migratory flows.
Despite hardships in Venezuela, which is gripped by hyperinflation and a six-year recession, many migrants said that at least in their homeland they will not have to pay rent or utilities and will be reunited with family.
"There are thousands who want to return to Venezuela," said Johnny Antonio Madronedo, 34, who used to make a living collecting items to recycle on Bogota's streets but no longer has money to keep a roof over his head. "I can't live on the street with my family."
The Venezuelan border is about 550 kms (340 miles) from the Colombian capital, which sits high in the Andes Mountains. Long-distance bus services have been halted because of the quarantine, so migrants said they have no choice but to walk.
The journey takes between two and three weeks.
Madronedo said the hardest part would be passing through Colombia's cold, high-altitude wetlands: "We'll have to wrap up and look for transport."
For many, Colombia had seemed almost a paradise after widespread shortages in Venezuela. Yet migrants who worked selling candy, food or other items on the streets, dropping off deliveries, waiting tables or in construction have seen work dry up as Colombians retreated to their homes under government orders.
Empty streets and shuttered businesses also mean fewer passersby to ask for change, leaving migrants hungry or unable to pay daily rent for their modest accommodation.
"With coronavirus it's not the same," said 23-year-old migrant Paul Regales, who used to sell trash bags on the streets of Bogota. "We make our living from people being on the streets, and if there's no one how do we work?"
Regales, who walks on crutches after his right leg was amputated, said he was evicted from his rented room because he could not pay the $3.60 daily fee.
He arrived in Bogota 18 months ago but was heading home to the Venezuelan city of Valencia on Thursday.
"It's not that it will be easy, but we don't pay rent there, we'll be with family," said Regales. "If we're together it's better."
With fear of coronavirus raging in Venezuela, where many hospitals lack running water and medical equipment, the migrants face an uncertain welcome. Some people returning from Colombia told Reuters they had been bused to cities in Venezuela and then forcibly quarantined in dire conditions.
In the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, all returnees will be required to quarantine, officials have said.
LONG WALK HOME
Commercial trucks plying the highway outside Bogota, allowed to operate during the lockdown, had in the past sometimes let migrants hitch a ride. Now the drivers pull over less often, migrants said, amid fears of contagion.
Many migrants expressed hope Colombia's government might provide transport, food and water, or that Venezuela would send buses to take them to their hometowns.
But with the border officially closed and both governments scrambling to respond to the pandemic, help looked unlikely.
A U.N. report this week said informal border crossings continue to function and thousands of Venezuelan migrants are slipping across covertly.
"We can't work because everyone reproaches us, ignores us. We don't sell anything," said 28-year-old Yosbeli Quintero, as she cradled her 9-month-old son.
Quintero, her husband, some cousins and friends are making their way back to the small town of Cambural, near the city of Barquisimeto in northern Venezuela.
Francy Florez, who owns a restaurant in Sopo, on the highway about 40 kms outside Bogota, told Reuters she sees at least 150 migrants walk past in small groups every day.
Some migrants said they had heard of Venezuelans beginning to walk home from Ecuador, southwest of Colombia, but Reuters was not able to independently verify that claim.
"Some are returning to their country of origin, in some cases because the pandemic means we are all returning home," Juan Francisco Espinosa, the director of Colombia's migration agency, told Reuters. "The borders are closed and we cannot do entrances or exits."
Only crossings for "humanitarian" reasons such as medical emergencies will be allowed, Espinosa said.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Additional reporting by Angus Berwick and Sarah Kinosian in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in Tachira; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Daniel Wallis)
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