Venezuelan migrants live in shadows on Caribbean’s sunshine islands


Curaçao hosts 16,000 undocumented Venezuelans who live under threat of summary deportation and many more have fled crisis at home to Trinidad and Tobago. Bram Ebus (The Guardian) reports from Willemstad, Curaçao:

Sunburned European holidaymakers amble around the island’s colonial capital or lie sprawled on lounge chairs. From Curaçao’s postcard-perfect beaches you can sometimes see the coast of Venezuela, but tourists enjoying the sun are unlikely to see many of the thousands of Venezuelans who live here.

Angélica Morales, 37, barely leaves her cramped apartment in the capital, Willemstad: like thousands of undocumented migrants, she lives in constant fear of the police. “We have to be hidden. This is the life of the illegals here in Curaçao,” said Angélica, who – like other migrants on the island interviewed for this story – asked to be identified by a pseudonym.

Political repression, violent crime and economic collapse have caused at least 3 million Venezuelans – more than 9% of the country’s population – to flee their home since 2015, in an exodus without precedent in Latin America. The crisis has created challenges for countries across South America, where opportunities for migrants are scarce, even when they are granted political asylum. And due to their geographical proximity, the Caribbean islands have found themselves of the frontline of the emergency: Curaçao lies 40 miles off the Venezuelan coast while Trinidad is just seven miles from the mainland.

Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but more than 100,000 Venezuelans have fled to the Caribbean islands. At least 40,000 have gone to Trinidad and Tobago, some 28,500 are in the Dominican Republic and 16,000 have gone to Aruba.

The numbers are a fraction of those seen in mainland South America – Colombia has received more than a million migrants – but few of the territories in the region have the infrastructure to cope with such an influx and most have responded to the crisis by simply deporting any Venezuelans they can.

As the number of refugees increases, so does xenophobia and exploitation. In August, an angry mob destroyed a migrant camp in Brazil, and while such attacks have not been reported in the Caribbean, migrants have described a climate of hostility and official harassment. Unable to find legal employment, they are forced to work in the black economy; female migrants have been forced into sex work across the region.

Some 16,000 Venezuelans are living illegally in Curaçao – equivalent to 10% of the island’s population.

“No matter how small the flow is, we’re still talking about a significant percentage of the local population,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert from the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based thinktank.

A Venezuelan man sitting near a tourist beach on Curaçao put it another way: “The problem is not that people are eating from the trash in Venezuela, but that there’s not even enough trash for everyone.”

Venezuelans either enter as tourists and overstay their visa, or risk the dangerous sea journey in small boats; most consider themselves refugees, but Curaçao treats them as economic migrants.

“Unfortunately, in many countries [in the region] even refugees in need of protection are received as economic migrants. But the truth is that many of these people have humanitarian needs that go beyond those of more traditional economic migrants,” said Ramsey. [. . .]

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