On December 14, 14 Venezuelan migrants were found dead on the Venezuelan coast, their ships wrecked en route to Trinidad and Tobago. The island nations of the Caribbean are often overlooked in analyses of the Venezuelan migrant crisis due to the comparatively small numbers arriving to their shores, but these small nations receive some of the highest proportions of Venezuelans relative to their total population.
UNHCR estimated in January 2020 that there are 17,000 Venezuelans in Aruba, but have projected a total of 22,000 by the close of the year, representing roughly 16% of the country’s total population. In Curaçao, UNHCR estimated in June that 17,000 Venezuelan migrants resided on the island, representing just over 10% of the total population. Trinidad and Tobago’s official estimates from UNHCR reported 24,169 Venezuelan migrants in the country at the end of August, but many estimate the true number to be between 40,000 to 60,000, which would represent 2.9% to 4.3% of the total population. While the Dominican Republic has received the highest number of Venezuelans in the Caribbean, estimated at 114,500 as of late August, this represents just over 1% of the total population. These receiving countries have argued that it is difficult for host communities with relatively small populations to respond to high levels of migrants. Linguistic barriers complicate integration efforts, as the Dominican Republic is the only country of the four in which Spanish is an official language.
Venezuelan migrants have greatly struggled to gain access to legal status in host countries in the Caribbean. As reported by Refugees International, Curaçao, for one, has no formal asylum system nor alternative protection programs to receive Venezuelans, and instead has utilized an “active removal strategy” against migrants. Trinidad and Tobago similarly has no framework for asylum. In the summer of 2019, 16,523 Venezuelans were able to obtain legal status in Trinidad and Tobago through a government-led registration process, but since then, Venezuelans’ only recourse to gain status in the country has been to apply for visas and await determination before leaving Venezuela. Venezuelans in Aruba have also faced a greatly limited asylum system; the government, though, has taken positive steps to extend aid to undocumented populations during the pandemic. Although gaining access to legal status in the Dominican Republic remains burdensome and challenging, there is perhaps opportunity for change: recently-inaugurated President Luis Abinader has expressed support for a humanitarian response to Venezuelan migrants, and argued “the Dominican Republic owes a lot to Venezuela” for their reception of Dominican migrants during the country’s arduous path to democracy.
Lack of legal status puts migrants at risk for detention and eventual deportation, and for those in detention across the region, conditions are abysmal. Overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and overall “appalling conditions” are prevalent in detention centers across the region, according to Amnesty International. In Trinidad and Tobago, Amnesty International and other independent human rights organizations and NGOs have not been permitted access to Trinidad’s Immigration Detention Centre despite concerns over health and sanitation issues. In Aruba, detained Venezuelan migrants have protested conditions and lack of action in their cases. The conditions in these detention centers pose an even greater risk in the era of COVID-19.
Documentation and legal status are vital for the ability to gain employment and access to public services. Lack of documentation bars most Venezuelan migrants from formal employment in the region and relegates them to informal opportunities that are more likely to result in socio-economic insecurity and exploitation. And those with legal status must still apply for work-permits in a laborious and frustrating process, often leading many to forego applying.
The situation is particularly dire for women. Sexual exploitation of women is common, and sex trafficking has developed into a regular business amid the migrant crisis. Guards have sexually exploited women in Curaçao’s immigration detention, and Venezuelan women have become violently sexualized. In Trinidad and Tobago, an investigation by researcher Dr. Cleophas Justine Pierre “revealed that approximately 4,000 victims were trafficked in the last four to six years from the Güiria area in Venezuela” in a form of “modern-day slavery.” Sex trafficking is particularly abundant in major tourist destinations such as the Dominican Republic. Protections for women and girls that are subject to such exploitation and violence are greatly needed.
Access to public services is mixed within the region for the many Venezuelan migrants without legal status. While children can generally attend school without impediment in the Domican Republic, youth without legal status have no access to public education in Trinidad and Tobago. In Aruba and Curaçao, children are able to attend school, but barriers such as insurance and “local guarantor” requirements limit true access; language barriers also present an obstacle to learning. Moreover, Human Rights Watch has noted that immigration raids on schools have increased fear in Curaçao for those without status seeking access to public services, and have impacted school attendance.
This fear is a widespread issue, hampering access to health care, as well. Public health is always important, but the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the need for robust access to health care. Although access to primary health care is universal in the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, fear of deportation and lack of information and resources greatly limit access in practice. Health care is typically restricted to those with legal status in Aruba and Curaçao, but temporary access to COVID-19 related health care has been granted for the time being. Even though this is an important extension, limiting health care access to pandemic conditions is insufficient in the long-term and still excludes other medical issues.
Amid the pandemic, Aruba, Curaçao, and the Dominican Republic have temporarily suspended deportations and reduced immigration enforcement; the former two have additionally postponed the implementation of a visa requirement for Venezuelan nationals. These policies are steps in the right direction, but Trinidad and Tobago, in contrast, has continued to deport Venezuelans. On November 28, the country deported 160 Venezuelans. This followed the botched deportation earlier that week of 29 Venezuelans, including 16 minors, who were momentarily lost at sea before eventually being returned to Trinidad and Tobago. And the country has served as a conduit for stealth deportations of Venezuelans from the United States since at least October 2019. In October 2020, 25 leading human rights and migrant advocacy groups wrote a letter to Dr. Keith Rowley, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, condemning the continued deportations throughout the pandemic. In September, Rowley declared “we don’t want you here” to Venezuelan migrants; however, the country’s complex humanitarian crisis has only continued to deteriorate, forcing Venezuelans to flee to neighboring countries. Earlier this month, Maduro government representatives met with Trinidad and Tobago officials to discuss migrants and maritime security, but their dialogue has not resulted in any noticeable developments as of yet. Prospects for change in the near future in Venezuela are dim, and it will be up to the countries of the Caribbean to appropriately adapt their response to this reality and better integrate Venezuelan migrants.