Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao is no paradise for fleeing Venezuelans, report says

Migrants, mainly Venezuelans, wait outside of Living Water Community, an NGO that works with asylum seekers, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The island is thought to be home to more than 40,000 Venezuelans, many of them living there as undocumented migrants.
Migrants, mainly Venezuelans, wait outside of Living Water Community, an NGO that works with asylum seekers, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The island is thought to be home to more than 40,000 Venezuelans, many of them living there as undocumented migrants.

An international advocacy organization is calling on officials in the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao to allow undocumented Venezuelan migrants to gain temporary legal status, and to establish an asylum process so migrants seeking international protections can apply regardless of how they entered the country.

In a newly released report on the situation of displaced Venezuelans, Refugees International said the plight of Venezuelan migrants living in Curaçao, located just 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, is so precarious that it “could very well be the worst in the Americas.”

The report comes on the heels of similar observations by Human Rights Watch and other aid groups. They have noted that Venezuelan migrants without legal status in Curaçao live in daily fear that they will be subjected to widespread immigration raids and illegal deportations by police. Also the former Dutch colony lacks any viable system for people to apply for asylum, while the number of individuals seeking the protection has sharply increased.

“The government of Curaçao has been openly detaining and deporting people back to Venezuela, and without options to regularize their status, many Venezuelans are forced to live in hiding, in fear of the authorities, and at the mercy of employers who often exploit their irregular status,” said Izza Leghtas, one of the report’s authors.

Venezuelans who flee their country and enter Trinidad and Tobago illegally -- even if they’ve been recognized as refugees and asylum seekers -- risk jail. This is the situation in an Immigration Detention Center in Trinidad and Tobago.

While Venezuelans have fanned out across the Americas, including to nearby Trinidad and Tobago, as well as to South Florida, Leghtas said Refugees International decided to visit Curaçao because the level of vulnerability of Venezuelans who have fled there “really stands out when we look at the response of other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Curaçao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and as such it is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights treaties, Leghtas said.

“Yet the lack of protection for Venezuelans on the islands is at odds with these international obligations and with the very welcome support the Kingdom of the Netherlands is providing to refugees hosted by other countries,” she said.

The treatment is also in stark contrast to the government’s decision earlier this year to allow the U.S. to pre-position humanitarian aid in its territory for the people of Venezuela, who, among other things, lack basic hospital supplies in the oil-rich country. The request was made by the U.S. and by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has been recognized by the Netherlands as the South American nation’s interim president.

Venezuelans are fleeing their country to find food and medicines no longer available to them at home, as seen in this footage released by the World Food Programme on September 24. The UN said nearly half a million people fled to Ecuador in 2018.

“For an island the size of Curaçao, with a population of only 160,000, and with an economy that has suffered from the crisis in Venezuela, the challenges of hosting thousands of recently arrived refugees and migrants are undeniable,” the report said. “These challenges do not justify the dire situation of Venezuelans on the island of Curaçao within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, however.”

Among the report’s recommendations: the government of Curaçao should stop deportations of Venezuelans and allow those seeking refuge there to have access to its labor market, healthcare and education. It also calls on the Trump administration to provide assistance to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from Venezuela with a focus on access to healthcare and protection of women, especially against gender-based violence, trafficking and exploitation.

With no official count, it is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Venezuelans living in Curaçao.

“Because they cannot access the formal labor market, their only option is to work in the informal sector, where they are vulnerable to exploitation and have no legal protection or remedies against abusive employers,” the report said. “For women who face abuse at the hands of partners or ex-partners, there is nowhere to turn for protection.”

A growing number of Venezuelan migrants are dying in Colombia, and their families are too poor to afford a funeral. Sonia Bermudez, in Colombia's La Guajira, is offering them free funerals and a crypt in her cemetery.