MEDELLÍN, COLOMBIA — The posts began to pop up in Mym Hernandez’s Facebook and WhatsApp groups in November 2018.
“PERDIDA,” they read. “LOST.”
Next to the word was the smiling face of her friend, Ilama, from Hernandez’s home in Venezuela. Just earlier that month Hernandez, a 29-year-old Venezuelan migrant in Colombia, had seen that face in person.
Ilama was one of more than a million migrants who’d arrived in Colombia in the midst of an economic crisis in Venezuela. He told Hernandez that he’d temporarily come to the country to earn money to send back to his family.
“And from then on, I did not know any more of him,” she told ThinkProgress.
Fifteen days later, he was gone: no messages to his family, no calls. Radio silence for weeks.
“My brother lives in Medellín and is Venezuelan,” read a Facebook post by Ilama’s sister in Venezuela. “He makes his living selling chocolates in the streets of Medellín. We don’t know anything of him since 10-28-2018. No one knows anything of him. … We fear something happened to him.”
The post is just one of a growing a wave on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and across the web, rolling in from Venezuelan migrants who have fled food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, and political violence.
I just arrived in the city and I need work.
I’m living on the street and don’t have a place to stay.
Does anyone know how I can get a visa?
Have you seen my brother?
Once an oil-rich country, Venezuela suffered years of economic mismanagement under President Nicolas Maduro, who has been in office since 2013. Hyperinflation has made the country’s currency practically worthless and has pushed its citizens into starvation. Over the past several years, most of those fleeing Venezuela have migrated to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.
“The situation in Venezuela every day gets worse, there is so much decline,” said Hernandez. “Eating is not the same, health is not the same, education is not the same, medicine is not the same. You cannot rest.”
Now, more than 3 million — around 10.5 percent of the country’s population — have fled Venezuela, according to the United Nations.
Migrants often land in new countries with hopes of finding jobs to send money home to starving families and often end up working informal sector jobs — selling street food, busking, or prostitution — sometimes earning cents-per-hour. Some arrive with nothing and no one, staying in contact with family through messaging and social media apps, if they can.
Tens of thousands of people like Hernandez have flocked to groups on Facebook or WhatApp created for displaced Venezuelans and their families.
The groups act as somewhat of a modern safety net for the migrants, providing information about places to seek aid, places to give it, places to cry and celebrate, and, increasingly, places to seek out lost loved ones in the chaos of the crisis.
And as mass migrations take hold across the world from Eastern Europe to the U.S.-Mexico border, cell phones and social media have become an integral part of the way migrants survive sometimes life-or-death situations.
Central Americans traveling north in the migrant caravan have used WhatsApp and Facebook groups to organize and continue their flight from violence in their countries. Others fleeing to European countries use Google Maps to navigate treacherous journeys across seas and through borders. A growing number of Middle Eastern, African, and Venezuelan migrants are using cell phones to keep in contact with the families they were forced to leave.
For Victor Mulford, a Venezuelan migrant living in Medellín, Colombia, his cell phone acts as a lifeline. Mulford, 34, fled to Colombia in late October with the goal of getting a job and sending money to his wife, his 11-year-old daughter, and the starving family he left behind.
“I have my spouse, my beautiful daughter, mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts. Nearly my entire family I have in Venezuela,” he told ThinkProgress. “My daughter is, well, my world. My life is her, it was all for her. For my daughter.”
WhatsApp has been his only means of contact with them and has been the tool he’s used to make plans to help his family escape the collapsing country.
Others, like Hernandez, turn to the new digital tools to search for traces of their loved ones, feeling — much like a growing number of migrants — that the country’s politicians and governments have left them in the dust.
“It is better to search for your loved ones because neither [Colombian] migration or the government do anything to search for missing people or anything else,” she said.
“Because of this, we search through our own means. Through means of technology, through Facebook, through WhatsApp, through contacts, through groups of friends.”
Social media and other digital forms of communication have become especially necessary as more and more migrants have disappeared in the midst of their travels. On the Colombia-Venezuela border, migrants without documentation or means to pass through legal entries increasingly trek through passages controlled by illegal armed groups and treacherous terrain. Those journeys are claiming a growing number of lives.
An October investigation by the Associated Press revealed the death toll of the crisis has been “largely invisible.” Official reports count little more than a dozen disappeared, but that number actually ranges into the thousands, according to the investigation.
When Hernandez took to the internet with the fear that her friend had become one of those victims, the messages caught the eye of another in the group. A man with whom Ilama was living connected with Hernandez and the family, explaining that he had been working long hours outside the city without a phone or a means to contact them. After several days, Ilama had finally been found.
For them, Hernandez said, the situation was lucky.
As the exodus from the Venezuela only worsens, reactions like Hernandez’s have grown all the more common, though many come without an response.
“This boy is Venezuelan and his name is Juan David Briceño Albornoz and has been missing since December 30,” read one post from March 25, 2018.
“That day was the last time he communicated with his family. His relatives are desperate and do not have the money to come here to search for him. … If there is anyone who can help asking in hospitals, police station or morgues, they thank you.”
A resource in a exodus of migrants
Toni Vitola said he started seeing the calls for help in his group pop up about 2016.
Vitola, vice president of the aid organization Colony of Venezuelans in Colombia, leads the Facebook group “Venezolanos en Medellín Oficial,” or “Venezuelans in Medellín Official.”
When the page began in 2009, it was a small community of diaspora Venezuelans, just over 2,000 who had moved from Venezuela at a time when the country was still known for its booming economy.
When migrants began filing out of their country and into Colombia, the numbers of the group jumped to over 40,000 and the tone of the messages that speckled the page began to change.
“Almost always, Venezuelans reach out in emergency health situations,” Vitola said. “Pregnant Venezuelans who don’t have anywhere to give birth to a child or, for example, people who come here have situations on the streets. They don’t have a place to sleep. These are the types of situations that reach us.”
In Colombia, the need is especially large. The country has taken on the brunt of the crisis, opening its doors to over 1.2 million people. But experts say it remains remarkably unprepared for the worsening situation and Colombian President Ivan Duque has said the migration is costing his country .5 percent of its annual GDP.
Despite growing international aid, organizations continue to struggle to keep up with the tide of migrants as their shelters brim with people and face food shortages.
“The constant flow of Venezuelans entering Colombia generates monumental challenges to address their humanitarian needs,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in a visit to the Colombia-Venezuela border earlier this year.
With the lack of resources, digital platforms “change the journey” for migrants, said Caroline Brettell, a Texas-based immigration researcher.
“An older migrant might have arrived somewhere with a name and an address, then have to get on a train or a bus … and sort of knock on doors looking for people,” she said. “Now, you can do all this preparation ahead of time through the use of technology.”
But the increasing reliance on platforms like Facebook have also brought with them new dangers. Human traffickers and scammers have started to use the groups to take advantage of the vulnerable Venezuelans, using fake profiles to post fake jobs offers — $1,000 for 15 days a work, a lucrative idea for someone earning little-to-nothing.
In October, Facebook came under fire for allegedly enabling human traffickers after a lawsuit by one human trafficking survivor accused the platform of allowing traffickers to “stalk, exploit, recruit, groom … and extort children into the sex trade.”
While Vitola and leaders of COLVENZ, moderators of “Venezolanos en Medellín Oficial,” watch the group diligently to protect the tens of thousands of migrants who lean on it, the risk remains for other groups that may lack the same level of surveillance.
Despite these challenges, the groups give organizations like Vitola’s a way to extend aid, keeping Venezuelans out of desperate situations that might drive them to those traffickers. They have, in turn, received a constant flow of messages asking for help. Vitola alone says he receives at least 30 a day from migrants.
“(The groups) are very important because, if you know no one, friends on Facebook can turn into a mechanism to get more information, or in this case, much easier to access for the Venezuelan population,” he said. “Because the reality is: nearly every person in the world has a cell phone.”
For Mulford, the Venezuelan migrant using WhatsApp, it was the buzzing his pocket that kept him in Colombia.
When he arrived with a backpack weighing heavy on his shoulders, the first thing he did was call his wife and sob.
“I cried about coming, about what I had lost,” he said. “About the health that controls my family, about how horrible Venezuela is, the hunger that is happening in Venezuela, for the people that are dying because there is no medicine.”
And as he spent months selling empanadas on the streets, working long hours for about $.15 an hour and wondering if he should return to the mangled home he had left, it was those WhatsApp messages and video calls that kept him in Colombia, fighting.
“Sometimes I say that I want to return, that I want to go back,” he said. “And in that moment I make myself say, ‘No, I will stay, I will support. I will not go back to where I was, where every day it is much worse.’”