At daybreak thousands of Venezuelans whose lives have been ruined by their tyrant president cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge to seek sanctuary in Colombia.

Dragging battered suitcases, pushing baby strollers and with giant canvas holdalls hoisted on their shoulders they walk into a country where their thick wads of cash count for nothing.

They fled 80,000% inflation which rendered their salaries worthless and has led to rioting, looting and endemic poverty.

Stood next to border guards in the Colombian city of Cucuta, a tide of human misery surges towards me.

In the coming days this seemingly never-ending exodus could swell even more as Venezuela’s despised leader President Nicolas Maduro shores up his defences in the face of international outrage.

On Tuesday it emerged that a Russian passenger plane had landed in the country’s capital Caracas with space for 400 passengers who could include mercenaries dispatched to help the ailing regime by the Kremlin.

While Donald Trump has recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, Russia and China are backing Madero.

Sources in Moscow say Russian premier Vladimir Putin has already dispatched so-called “military contractors” to Venezuela.

Meanwhile the American government has imposed sanctions against the country’s state-owned oil company to cut off the embattled government’s main source of cash.

While the escalating international row plays out, the queues for the overcrowded, fume-belching buses waiting in Cucuta keep getting longer.

Most of the arrivals are exhausted from long journeys and a sleepless night on the other side.

Some weep, some slump down in the shade, and some prepare to pawn their jewellery or even sell their long hair.

There are tiny babies in mothers’ arms, toddlers, young couples and in amongst them pensioners who enjoyed a comfortable retirement just a few years ago when oil-rich Venezuela was South America’s wealthiest nation.

Yet at least here on the other side of the frontier they have a slim chance of making a fresh start.

On a filthy pavement just before the huge ‘Welcome to Colombia’ sign over the road I meet Graicel Sulado, 29, and her husband Franyer Suarez, 31, with their ten-year-old son Adrian.

Graicel is crying, wiping tears off her cheeks with her finger tips, but simply unable to restrain her emotions.

She cannot believe her family has ended up in this pitiful predicament.

“We have absolutely nothing here but we have no choice,” Graicel splutters.

“We don’t even have enough to pay for a meal now we are here. We have been travelling for a long time, we are tired, and we cannot even eat or get a drink.

“I just want to cry. I just cannot understand why this has been allowed to happen.”

Husband Franyer is just as enraged.

“Imagine having a decent job like I did and then hardly being able to afford a loaf of bread,” he says. “That’s what it’s like now. I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried about how we would get by.

“There has been a lot of rioting too and that has made the area where we lived in Barquisimento extremely dangerous all the time. The police and the army are out on the streets all the time. I was always worrying they might take me away because that has been happening.”

Sprightly eighty-seven-year-old Francisco has been given a plastic chair by the customs officers in the shade of their cabin to keep him out of the blistering heat.

“I was happy at home in Maracay,” Francisco, a widower, tells me. “I had a good life. I could walk by the lake and go to the coast. My family had always been happy. This inflation has made it impossible though.

“My pension and savings are worth nothing now, nothing at all. What else could I do but come here.”

I watch as Francisco shuffles slowly with the aid of a passer-by and a walking cane towards an uncertain destiny in a country he knows little about.

Dajarlene Rodriquez, 23, clutches her tiny daughter Victoria, aged 13 months in a blanket, and has few other possessions.

“My husband told me we had to leave,” Dajarlene exclaims. “He was too worried about us. There is anarchy on the streets now. People are so desperate that they will do anything to get some money.”

The dire circumstances of the millions who have undertaken this unwanted journey makes the Cucuta border a haven for criminal gangs and racketeers exploiting others’ misery.

Some uncaring entrepreneurs even charge the Venezuelans to use Portacabin toilets, knowing they have waited for hours in line before walking over the two-hundred-yard no man’s land that separates the two countries.

At the roadside I see men furtively approach a pair of newly-arrived teenage girls.

Many unaccompanied young women have been lured into the sex industry by traffickers waiting to pounce on the most vulnerable at this main road from Venezuela.

By the crowd-control barriers the vultures await with their scissors for women willing to sell their hair for wigs just to have enough money to continue their trip.

They pay between £10 and £60 for a woman’s hair, depending on whether it is shoulder-length or longer, and there is a constant stream of customers.

As we approach, one of the ringleaders of this shameful business opportunity raises his hand to indicate we are not welcome observers.

A chaotic din from touts selling Colombian mobile SIM cards and bottled water, taxi drivers offering rides into the city centre, and money-changers prepared to accept pretty much any currency except the Venezuelan bolivar.

In one of the many pawn shops in this hectic hub there is a constant flow of people willing to sell precious rings, watches, bracelets and necklaces.

Many of the Venezuelans were well-off not long ago.

Among them is Cesar Ojil, 54, one of many selling cigarettes and coffee at a plastic table.

“I had two farms and a wonderful apartment in the city in Venezuela,” he admits mournfully. “Now this is it; this is my life. I sleep in a tent at night.”

Cesar’s dream is to go back home.

But if President Maduro gets a helping hand from his powerful friends that could be many years away.

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