To many outsiders, the Caribbean is synonymous with crystal-clear water, idyllic beaches and luxury resorts. But for tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing violence and poverty back home, the islands of the southern Caribbean are less paradise, and more purgatory.
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Human rights groups and activist organizations told WikiTribune that Venezuelans living in Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Dominican Republic, and Curaçao face uncertain legal status, discrimination, exploitation and alleged human rights violations.
“There’s lot of interest with what’s happening in Colombia, in Brazil. But there’s still little information about the situation of Venezuelans in the Caribbean,” Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, Americas deputy director for research at Amnesty International, told WikiTribune. “This is very worrying because it’s in the Caribbean where some of the most worrying situations from a human rights perspective are starting to surface.”
Jiménez Sandoval said one of the most serious instances was Trinidad and Tobago’s deportation of 82 Venezuelans – some of whom were registered asylum-seekers, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) – back to their country on April 21. Two days later, the UNHCR said their “forced” return constituted “a breach of international refugee law.”
The island’s government denied the accusation and said the Venezuelans had been detained at the immigration detention center for several offenses. “We are a little island, limited space of 1.3 million people and therefore we cannot and will not allow the UN spokespersons to convert us into a refugee camp,” said Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley at a press conference a week later, according to The Jamaica Observer.
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Greisy Carolina González Laguna, a 30-year-old clinical psychologist and former university professor who moved to the island in late 2016, said it is very hard for Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers to get work visas. Venezuelans face constant xenophobia and racism, she said. The women, herself included, also face sexism.
“Being a Latina woman, for them, means that you’re a prostitute,” she told WikiTribune. “If I’m on the street, men always say things to you – always.”
González Laguna was invited to Trinidad and Tobago in late 2016 by friends. Despite her qualifications and having married a local man, her visa doesn’t allow her to work. Instead, she volunteers helping vulnerable Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago.
“In Trinidad, I have absolutely no one from my family. And I don’t think I will, because I wouldn’t recommend them to come here,” she said. “There are no opportunities for migrants.”
At the end of 2017, almost 100,000 Venezuelans were living in the southern Caribbean, according to a report published in March 2018 by the UNHCR. Roughly 40,000 live in Trinidad and Tobago, 20,000 in Aruba, 18,000 in Dominican Republic, and 5,000 in Curaçao. (Another 15,000 were living in Guyana, Venezuela’s eastern neighbor.)
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The report noted that the islands’ small size and limited absorption capacity is being strained by the influx of Venezuelans escaping poverty and insecurity back home. It added that a lack of state-run asylum system in the southern Caribbean limited the channels through which refugees register and apply for asylum, leaving a large majority of them living in a situation of “legal limbo.”
“It’s true that these are small countries,” said Jiménez Sandoval. “But they don’t have the minimum systems in place, not only to receive migrants, but to protect those people who could qualify as refugees.”
González Laguna told WikiTribune this is the major issue facing vulnerable Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago.
“The fact that there are no possibilities to have legal status limits you in everything,” said González Laguna. “You can’t open a bank account, you can’t get a [driver’s] license, you can’t access education, you don’t have a work permit.”
Activists in Curaçao and Dominican Republic told WikiTribune that vulnerable Venezuelans in these places face similar dilemmas.
“People want to be legalized but that’s not possible because there’s no asylum procedure,” said Inchi Witteveen, a Dutch anthropologist who’s been living in Curaçao for over 20 years. “Most of them come without papers – they have to be invisible”.
Alberto Castro, spokesperson for Venezuelan Diaspora in Dominican Republic, an activist group, said 80 percent of Venezuelans there have an irregular legal status. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, he says. Castro’s group is campaigning to pressure the Dominican government to grant Venezuelan migrants a special migratory classification that might allow them to get temporary residency.
As of June 2018, the United Nations (UN) estimated that 2.3 million Venezuelans are living abroad. Colombia has taken in more Venezuelans than any other country – almost 900,000, according to Colombian authorities (Miami Herald). Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Chile and Argentina have also received tens of thousands of Venezuelans in the past few years.
Although initially welcoming, the scale of the exodus is straining South American nations. Last week, Ecuador and Peru announced more stringent entry requirements after hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans came into the countries. On April 18, a mob chased a group of Venezuelan migrants from their temporary camps in the Brazilian town of Pacaraima, near the border with Venezuela.