Unable to get a passport in his native Venezuela and fearing for his life, Alex hopped an overcrowded boat and had himself smuggled onto the tiny island of Trinidad earlier this year, a quick 20-mile trip.
He applied for asylum, but about a month into his stay he was rushed to the hospital with malaria. When he was released from the clinic after 16 days, he found immigration officials waiting for him.
Although the 22-year-old barber believed that his asylum application offered a modicum of protection, he was charged with entering the country illegally and deported to Venezuela in April along with 81 other Venezuelans.
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Alex, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is evading authorities, said life in Venezuela was impossible.
“I can’t stay where I live because they know I’m a member of the opposition and many of my friends have been killed,” he said.
About a month ago, with no other options, he returned to Trinidad and Tobago, where he has remained holed up on a farm, desperate for work but afraid to leave for fear of getting picked up by police.
Trinidad and Tobago is now home to more than 40,000 Venezuelans, many of whom entered the country out of desperation and without documents. While more than 7,000 have applied for asylum or refugee status, they’ve found that the designation doesn’t make them legal residents. They still risk being jailed for working without permission or not having the proper documents.
Last week, 78 Cuban migrants — many of them asylum seekers — were detained on charges of blocking the sidewalk as they protested for better conditions outside of the United Nations building in Port of Spain.
“I’m always scared of the police here,” said a recent Venezuelan immigrant named Mario, who is an asylum seeker and also spoke to the Miami Herald only if he could remain anonymous. “I’m scared to go to the doctor. I can’t go to the police if something happens to me. I can’t even open a bank account.”
In September, the government reported that there were 118 people at the Immigration Detention Center west of Port of Spain — about 75 percent of them there for entering the country illegally — and almost all of them Venezuelan. But activists say they really don’t know how many people are detained at any given time. Living Water Community, a local nonprofit that works with the U.N. to register asylum seekers, says it hasn’t been given unfettered access to the Immigration Detention Center since 2014.
Venezuela’s economic, social and political chaos has forced more than three million people to flee their country in recent years. And while Venezuelans are now found in almost every nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, they’re discovering no two situations are alike.
While migrants are sometimes offered temporary work permits in Colombia, Peru and Chile, some small nations and territories of the Caribbean have been much less welcoming.
On the Dutch island of Curacao, island officials took over the process of registering asylum seekers and refugees in July 2017. Since then, an Amnesty International report found the government had virtually quit approving asylum requests and had stepped up deportations. In 2017, the government repatriated 1,203 Venezuelans, and an additional 386 were deported during the first four months of 2018 — often without the right to seek protection. The White House has also floated the idea of denying asylum to those who enter the United States illegally.
The backlash comes as some small islands fear being flooded by Venezuelans. In Curacao, 16 percent of the population is now Venezuelan. In Aruba, Venezuelans represent 15 percent, and in Trinidad and Tobago, they make up 3 percent of the population, according to the latest U.N. figures.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of National Security and its immigration and police departments — all of which oversee different aspects of immigration — declined to be interviewed.
But opposition lawmaker Rodney Charles said it’s clear that the current administration is deeply conflicted. Trinidad sits less than 15 miles from Venezuela at its closest point, and has strong economic ties with President Nicolás Maduro’s administration. He said there are fears that if Trinidad openly acknowledges asylum and refugee cases, “it will alienate the Maduro government.”
And yet there’s also the real fear that the island “might be overwhelmed” by Venezuelan migrants, he said.
“We do not have a well-thought-out foreign policy, and our immigration policy is not reflective of our current circumstances,” he said. “The government’s approach is to put its head in the sand and hope things will disappear.”
In the meantime, Venezuelans living in Trinidad and Tobago say they feel stuck in a place where they may have the right to exist but not the right to truly live. And they fear detention and deportation every time they leave home.
Andrea, a 27-year-old mother of two from Valencia, Venezuela, said she knew she had to leave her country when her biweekly paycheck from her job in a grocery store would only buy two days’ worth of food amid rampant hyperinflation. Like the other migrants, she boarded an overcrowded boat and took the 40-minute trip to southern Trinidad.
She spent two months working illegally on a farm for about $20 a day before one of the workers turned her and others over to the police. Even though she had applied for asylum, she claims she was sent to the Immigration Detention Center, and then to prison for three months on charges of entering the country illegally.
At the prison, she says she was housed with murderers and drug traffickers. “It’s a nasty, disgusting place that’s not fit for human life,” she said. She was eventually transferred back to the immigration center for another two months and is now facing deportation, but that action has been put on hold due to her asylum status.
In April, when Trinidad and Tobago deported the 82 Venezuelans, including some applying for asylum, the U.N. Refugee Agency called it of “grave concern” and asked the country to “abide by its international obligations.” Since then, advocates say the nation has refrained from mass deportation of asylum seekers — even though many migrants worry it’s a real possibility.
Facing these hardships, many of the Venezuelans blame the UNHCR — the U.N.’s refugee agency — and other nonprofits for processing their asylum claim but not helping guarantee their rights. But the agencies point out that they’re entirely dependent on the host country.
“The fact that a person or a family has been forced to flee their own homeland and find themselves in another country — not of their choosing but to remain alive — should not be something that penalizes them from being able to regain possession of their lives and have a basic modicum of human dignity,” said Chris Boian, a spokesman with UNHCR. “This is what our organization talks about every day with governments around the world.”
Given the restrictions in Trinidad and Tobago, many would like to be resettled in a third country where they can legally work. But the reality is that less than 1 percent of refugees and asylum seekers ever qualify for resettlement, due to the limited number of slots provided by receiving countries.
“The essential dichotomy is how to help people who have been forcibly displaced and are in another country find solutions that are acceptable to and are, above all, workable for to the countries that are hosting the refugees,” Boian said. “And no two situations are alike.”
Mario, one of the asylum seekers, said in many ways, his life in Trinidad mirrors what he left behind.
“In Venezuela I was always worried about getting arrested by the SEBIN [political police], and here I’m worried about getting arrested by the police,” he said. “The difference here is that if you work you can make enough to eat, and that’s not possible in Venezuela.”