Content in this article includes the discussion of sexual violence, child abuse and suicide. 

Mayerlín Vergara Pérez sleeps with her phone on her pillow. As the director of a home for dozens of children and teens who have survived sexual violence and exploitation in Riohacha, on Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela, she never knows when she might get called in to resolve a crisis. 

The children under Mayerlín’s care have gone through unimaginable trauma. Some have been rescued from street corners, brothels and bars where they are forced into sexual exploitation — sometimes by human trafficking networks — others have been removed from families distorted by abuse. Regardless of their experiences and history, the recovery process is often a long and tumultuous one. 

“Sexual violence has all but destroyed their ability to dream,” says Mayerlín, 45.

“It’s stolen their smiles and filled them with pain, anguish and anxiety. The pain is so profound, and the emotional void they feel is so deep, that they simply don’t want to live.”

For more than two decades, Mayerlín has assisted hundreds of the roughly 22,000 children and teens who have been cared for by the Fundacion Renacer. 

“Sexual violence has all but destroyed their ability to dream.”

The Colombian non-profit has been working for more than 30 years to rebuild the lives of Colombian-born children and more recently those from Venezuela who were forced into sexual exploitation as they fled the ongoing crisis back home. 

Masked UNHCR worker sits and chats

UNHCR’s 2020 Nansen Refugee Award Laureate, Mayerlín Vergara Perez, talks to a young Venezuelan girl during a visit to Villa Del Sur, a neighbourhood that is home to some 3,000 migrants on the outskirts of La Guajira, Colombia. © UNHCR/N.Filippo Rosso

In 2018, Mayerlín went on a two-month-long reconnaissance mission to the border region with Venezuela. She was horrified to see hundreds of children and teens were either already being sexually exploited or at considerable risk. Half of them were Venezuelan refugees and migrants. 

“It was an absolutely agonising situation,” says Mayerlín. 
“Many of the girls told us that their circumstances, having to live on the streets in extreme poverty, had forced them into sexual exploitation.”

Mayerlín volunteered to spearhead the founding of a rehabilitation home in the region. Since opening its doors about a year and a half ago, the home has served more than 75 survivors of sexual exploitation — some as young as seven. 

In recognition of her work, Mayerlín has been named the laureate of the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award. 

The award acknowledges the extraordinary lengths she has gone to in support of forcibly displaced and stateless people.

Some five million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, fleeing food and medicine shortages, inflation and widespread insecurity. An estimated 1.8 million of them have sought protection in neighbouring Colombia. 

Trafficking and exploitation thrive amid conflict, insecurity and displacement and people who have been forced to leave their homes find themselves particularly exposed to both risks.

Three women's shadows cast on to the pavement, walking hand in hand

Sex tourism in Colombia has had a devastating impact on children and adolescents and has been compounded by the Venezuelan crisis which has brought hundreds of minors across the border putting them at risk of violence and harassment. © UNHCR/N.Filippo Rosso

At the Fundacion Renacer rehabilitation home — one of only three such homes in all of Colombia — the children receive individual therapy group sessions and partake in educational activities, providing them with order and structure while also giving them the space and time they need to process their trauma. 

A team of more than a dozen professionals, including teachers, a psychologist, a social worker, a nutritionist and a lawyer are on hand to help them rebuild their lives. Once they are able, the children resume their studies and over the years, many have gone on to lead fruitful careers.

Mau de Oro is one of them. Now 29 years old and pursuing a career in music, Mau was just five years old when he first suffered sexual violence — a pattern of abuse he says led to numerous suicide attempts. He spent three years at Fundacion Renacer. 

“I was in line to become one more statistic, another young person who ends up taking their own life. [At the home] my wounds began to heal, and I started to feel at peace… and started to recover my will to live and dream.”

The economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak has left many Venezuelans unemployed and homeless, pushing them deeper into poverty — one of the main drivers of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

This coupled with disrupted education has left children exposed to exploitation and abuse. Many children face child labour or child marriage to help sustain their families. Tight border restrictions to curb the spread of the virus have also forced many desperate people to resort to irregular means of crossing borders in search of safety.

Masked woman sits on the floor laughing

At the Fundacion Renacer rehabilitation home — one of the only three such homes in all of Colombia — the children receive individual therapy group sessions and partake in educational activities. © UNHCR/N.Filippo Rosso

UNHCR is working closely with local and ​national government institutions to strengthen the assistance provided to Venezuelan refugees and migrants. We are providing lifesaving assistance in border areas to new arrivals, supporting access to basic goods and services, promoting peaceful coexistence with host communities as well as access to fundamental rights such as documentation, education and employment. 

* Mau’s name has been changed for protection reasons

If you need support at any time please call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or the National sexual assault, domestic or family violence counselling service on 1800RESPECT.

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