Hidden and Afraid—Venezuelans Without Status or Protection on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curaçao

Since the mass movement of people fleeing the crisis in Venezuela intensified in 2017, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have grappled with ways to meet the needs of this growing population. Countries like Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, which host the largest numbers of Venezuelans, have put in place temporary residence schemes that allow beneficiaries to remain in the country legally and access employment. In displacement crises, the quality of services and assistance typically varies from one host country to another, but the fate of Venezuelans seeking refuge on the small island of Curaçao, only 40 miles from the coast of Venezuela, could very well be the worst in the Americas.

No data are available on the number of Venezuelans in an irregular situation currently in Curaçao, but according to estimates received by Refugees International, it could be as high as 10,000 to 13,000. Not only has the government of Curaçao failed to put in place a protection scheme for this population, it has enforced an “active removal strategy” by arresting, detaining, and deporting Venezuelans with irregular status. Curaçao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and as such is bound by several international human rights treaties and conventions, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). For Venezuelans in Curaçao, however, these rights are inaccessible.

A Refugees International team visited Curaçao in February 2019 to research the conditions of Venezuelans living there. The team interviewed Venezuelans living in an irregular situation, members of the Venezuelan diaspora with legal status on the island, and representatives of civil society organizations and UN agencies. They described a dire situation in which no real opportunities exist for Venezuelans who seek to obtain international protection or other forms of legal stay, thus forcing them into irregularity.

Because of their irregular status and the government’s policy of detaining and deporting people back to Venezuela, Venezuelans described to the team a life of hiding behind closed doors, in constant fear of the authorities. 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. For women who face abuse at the hands of partners or ex-partners, there is nowhere to turn for protection.

The Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao lies just 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela.

In February 2019, at Curaçao’s request, the government of the Netherlands announced it would provide assistance to Curaçao in facing the influx of refugees and migrants from Venezuela. This development provides an opportunity for the government of Curaçao to make changes that should include a system for granting Venezuelans access to legal status, including the right to work, and an immediate end to the policy of detaining and deporting Venezuelans because of their immigration status.

The government of Curaçao should also address reports of sexual exploitation of women from Venezuela and provide protection and remedies for victims. It should also tackle reports of xenophobia and discrimination against its refugee and migrant population through an information and education campaign.

Recommendations

To the government of Curaçao:

  • In view of the situation inside Venezuela, stop deportations of Venezuelan nationals back to Venezuela.

  • Grant Venezuelan migrants temporary residence permits that give them access to the labor market, education, and health care.

  • Establish an asylum system that allows people seeking international protection to apply at any time and regardless of how they entered the country. Those granted asylum should have access to labor markets, health care, and education.

  • Once the asylum process is established, the government of Curaçao should make information on it publicly available, including at points of entry in Curaçao.

  • Collaborate with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure that effective international protection avenues are provided in Curaçao.

  • Grant people who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR the right to work in Curaçao.

  • In line with Curaçao’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ensure that detention on the grounds of immigration status is used only as a last resort and for the shortest period of time.

  • When people are detained because of their irregular status, ensure that they are informed of their rights to apply for international protection and contact a lawyer. Also, ensure that lawyers have unhindered access to clients in detention and detainees have access to free legal aid.

  • Prioritize granting residence permits to suspected victims of trafficking, which give them the right to work and access to health care, including during an investigation.

  • Carry out a campaign to combat xenophobia and discrimination against migrants and refugees, including those from Venezuela. Such a campaign should include information on the situation in Venezuela and the conditions that have pushed millions of people to flee the country.

To the Ombudsman of Curaçao:

  • Carry out an independent investigation into trafficking for sexual exploitation in Curaçao.

  • Continue monitoring the use and conditions of detention of persons on the grounds of their immigration status, and access to international protection in Curaçao.

To the government of the Netherlands:

  • Ensure that policies applied to migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Curaçao meet the obligations of the Kingdom of the Netherlands under international law, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  • Work with UNHCR to ensure asylum seekers and refugees in Curaçao receive the protection and humanitarian assistance they need.

  • Convene a meeting of experts from Latin American and Caribbean host countries of Venezuelan asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants to exchange information and best practices on providing protection and assistance to improve the situation for Venezuelans in Curaçao.

To the government of the United States:

  • Support civil society efforts in Curaçao to provide assistance to asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants from Venezuela and other countries, with a focus on access to health care and the protection of women, including protection from gender-based violence and sex trafficking and exploitation.

Background

Since 2017, the number of Venezuelans fleeing their homes and crossing into neighboring countries has increased at alarming rates. Political and economic crises have left many without access to basic goods―including food and medicine―and social services. In February 2019, the number of refugees and migrants from Venezuela reached 3.4 million.(1) The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that the total number of Venezuelans fleeing their country will reach 5.3 million by the end of 2019.(2)

The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean host the vast majority of Venezuelans―an estimated 2.7 million.(3) Some of the larger host countries in Latin America have put in place policies that include temporary residence permits that grant Venezuelans access to labor markets and education. However, such arrangements are far less common among host countries in the Caribbean. In Curaçao, they do not exist. Although official figures are not available, thousands of Venezuelans are estimated to be living on the island in an irregular situation, putting them at risk of arrest, deportation, and exploitation.

Indeed, the Curaçao government has openly engaged in what it has termed an “active removal strategy” by detaining and deporting Venezuelans back to Venezuela. As noted by the United Nations Committee against Torture, the authorities in Curaçao forcibly returned more than 1,000 Venezuelans in 2017, some of whom expressed a fear of being subjected to torture and other illtreatment upon return.(4)

During and following its visit to Curaçao in February 2019, a Refugees International delegation received credible information about the ongoing immigration detention of Venezuelan nationals in Curaçao and deportations back to Venezuela. Despite the Venezuelan government’s closure of the border to air and sea traffic from Curaçao in late February 2019,(5) the Curaçao authorities continued deportations to Venezuela by air. According to information received by Refugees International, these deportations were ongoing at the time of the writing of this report.

Curaçao is a small island development state (SIDS) with a population of just over 160,000. It faces economic challenges that have been heightened by the instability in Venezuela, given the countries’ close trade ties. In 2017, its unemployment rate was 14.1 percent, with the youth unemployment rate reaching 32.8 percent.(6) These rates decreased slightly in 2018, to 13.4 and 29.3 percent, respectively.(7) Curaçao’s economy is built primarily on three distinct industries: tourism, oil refining, and offshore finance. Curaçao’s economy has been significantly impacted by the crisis in Venezuela.(8) Because of the limited economic opportunities on the island, many young, educated Curaçaoans leave for the Netherlands or other countries in search of work. A perceived threat of competition over jobs has contributed to tensions between the locals and Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

In February 2019, the government of the Netherlands established a humanitarian hub in Curaçao at the request of Curaçao, the United States, and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the government of the Netherlands has recognized as the interim president of Venezuela.(9) The hub is intended to coordinate the delivery of assistance to Venezuelans still in Venezuela, given the island’s close proximity to the latter. In response, the Maduro government closed the border with Curaçao.(10)

Few humanitarian organizations operate inside Curaçao, although IOM and the Red Cross maintain a local presence. UNHCR and one international nongovernmental organization are stationed on nearby Aruba. As a result, the response in Curaçao has been coordinated largely by local volunteers, most of whom are Venezuelans who have been on the island for several years. UNHCR has repeatedly offered to provide operational and legal support to Curaçao.(11) Until now, Curaçao and the Netherlands have done little to respond to the precarious situation of Venezuelans on the island itself. In October 2018 and again in January 2019, the government of Curaçao formally requested assistance from the government of the Netherlands to respond to the arrival of Venezuelan migrants and refugees. In February 2019, the Netherlands agreed to provide short-term technical assistance to help Curaçao address this situation.(12) It remains to be seen whether and how such assistance will address the protection needs of Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Curaçao.

The Netherlands is often seen as a supporter of human rights and a provider of humanitarian assistance and development aid internationally. However, the fate of Venezuelans in Curaçao stands in stark contrast to the support the Netherlands provides refugees elsewhere―for instance, through initiatives that help refugees access employment in Turkey and Jordan. The Netherlands has also provided humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans still inside the country and has donated 4 million euros to Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Colombia.(13)


Endnotes

1. UN, “Venezuelan Refugees Now Number 3.4 Million; Humanitarian Implications Massive, UN Warns,” UN News, February 22, 2019, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/02/1033361.

2. Christine Armario, “UN: Venezuela Exodus Likely to Swell to 5.3 Million in 2019,” Associated Press, December 14, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/9d028257954545ccb1489cc0c4fb59e8.

3. Armario, “UN: Venezuela Exodus.”

4. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Committee Against Torture, “Concluding Observations on the Seventh Periodic Report of the Netherlands,” December 2018, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CAT/ Shared%20Documents/NLD/CAT_C_NLD_CO_7_33166_E.pdf.

5. Nicholas Casey, “Venezuela Closes Border to 3 Caribbean Islands Ahead of Aid Showdown,” New York Times, February 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/20/world/americas/venezuela-borders-aid.html.

6. Curaçao Chronicle, “Labor Force Survey 2018 Starts in Curaçao in Early September,” August 29, 2018, http://curacaochronicle.com/local/labor-force-survey-2018-starts-in-curacao-in-early-september/.

7. Central Bureau of Statistics Curaçao (CBS), “Results Labor Force Survey 2018,” https://www.cbs.cw/website/press-releases-2019_3580/item/results-labour-force-survey-2018_2587.html.

8. Because of the countries’ close economic ties, the crisis in Venezuela has affected crucial economic activities, such as oil refining, tourism, and trade. For more information, see: “Crisis in Venezuela Continues to Affect Curaçao,” Curaçao Chronicle, January 2, 2019, https://www.Curacaochronicle.com/post/local/crisis-in-venezuela-continues-to-affect-Curaçao/.

9. The Daily Herald, “Curaçao Base for Humanitarian Aid,” February 15, 2019, https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/85238-Curaçao-base-for-humanitarian-aid.

10. Casey, “Venezuela Closes Border.”

11. UNHCR, “UNHCR Renews Offer to Curaçao on Venezuelan Refugee Response,” January 17, 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/ en-us/news/press/2019/1/5c40d3ba4/unhcr-renews-offer-to-Curaçao-on-venezuelan-refugee-response.html.

12. Lizan Nijkrake, “For Venezuelan Refugees, There’s No Safe Haven in Curaçao,” Foreign Policy, January 28, 2019, https:// foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/28/for-venezuelan-refugees-theres-no-safe-haven-in-Curaçao-asylum-maduro-netherlands-kingdom-nederland/.

13. Nijkrake, “For Venezuelan Refugees.”

Photo Credit: Falco Ermert