UN Dispatch: Venezuelan Refugees in Curaçao are Facing Abuse, Detention, and Deportation

This piece was originally published in the UN Dispatch.

“I’ve been here two years, and I don’t have a right to anything. I can’t get sick. The other day a neighbor started throwing stones [at me,] saying ‘You’re Venezuelan,’” a Venezuelan woman living in Curaçao told us. Soon after our arrival on the island in February, many Venezuelans with whom we spoke echoed her sentiment. 

It quickly became clear to us that the fate of Venezuelans in Curaçao might very well be the worst of those seeking refuge in the region. 

Curaçao, a Caribbean island that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and sits just off the coast of Venezuela, currently hosts an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 Venezuelans fleeing a political and economic crisis raging at home. In response, the government of Curaçao has engaged in what it has termed “an active removal strategy,” – arresting, detaining, and deporting Venezuelans with irregular status back to Venezuela with neither access to remedies against their detention or deportation nor to protection, and in violation of international human rights law.

Unlike countries such as Colombia and Peru, Curaçao has not put in place a system that grants Venezuelans access to regular status and legal employment. Quite the opposite: thousands of Venezuelans on the island are forced to live underground, and detention and deportations back to Venezuela continue. Moreover, earlier this month the Minister of Justice Quincy Girigorie announced a crackdown on businesses and people employing foreigners, with a particular focus on Venezuelans, who do not have work authorization or residence permits. 

We traveled to Curaçao in February 2019 to investigate the conditions for Venezuelans living there. Our findings were alarming. 

From day one, the level of fear Venezuelans experience on the island was palpable. Finding the two dozen Venezuelan men, women, and children we interviewed was difficult, more challenging than circumstances Refugees International has encountered in many other contexts. Hidden and afraid, the people we spoke with did not go outside to socialize or to simply enjoy the island’s outdoor spaces or sit in squares or cafés; most said they went outside only to work or buy groceries and medicine. One woman told us, “here, I live closed in.”

Venezuelans with irregular status in Curaçao face many challenges, including their inability to access basic services such as public health care. Yet, of all the concerns raised by those we interviewed, the most pressing was their inability to obtain work permits and work legally. Instead, they are forced to work in the informal labor market in low paying jobs where employers often exploit them. “Many times, we’re not paid for our work. If you say something, [the employers] say ‘We’ll call the police,’” one woman told us. Even for highly qualified people, the options available to them are mainly in construction, caring for children and elderly persons, and cleaning. 

The abuse and exploitation to which Venezuelan women are vulnerable as a consequence of their irregular status in Curaçao is particularly alarming. Speaking of her former partner, one young mother told us, “He beat me and I wanted to call the police, but I was afraid they would deport me and leave the baby here.” We also spoke with women who had worked in bars (locally referred to as “snack bars”) where they had been told they would merely serve drinks to customers but were actually required to engage in sex work.  For most women in such a situation, contacting the police is out of the question because they are afraid that their irregular status will be discovered and that they will be deported. Exposed to threats, forced into sex work and at the mercy of abusive partners or ex partners, often they have no way out.

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. However, these challenges are no excuse for violating Curaçao’s obligations under international human rights law. 

As a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherland and, at Curaçao’s request, the government of the Netherlands announced in late February that it would provide assistance to Curaçao in facing this situation. This 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 to public healthcare and establishing an effective asylum system. The first step should be an immediate end to the policy of detaining and deporting Venezuelans because of their immigration status.