Venezuela boat migrants float in Curacao asylum limbo


Willemstad, Curaçao (Netherlands Antilles) (AFP)

Just 60 miles across the water from Aron's town lay a quiet island of white beaches and palm trees: a paradise compared to his violent and impoverished homeland of Venezuela.

But the island of Curacao did not want him. Before he had time to apply to stay, he was deported back to his homeland in the midst of a deadly political crisis.

"As soon I got back I saw a lot of people in a critical state who really needed help," said the 24-year-old, who asked not to be identified by his last name.

"I said to myself, 'I don't want to fall into that state too. I have to get back to Curacao because here I can have a better life and at least eat properly."

That was when he decided to pay the traffickers.

- Run to the hills -

Aron squeezed along with 30 other people into a small fishing boat for the 17-hour crossing.

"It is really dangerous. There were lots of us in such a small boat. And it is a long voyage," he said.

"It is something you only do out of pure necessity. And thank God it all turned out alright."

Climbing out on the shores of Curacao, Aron ran into the hills to escape the police and coastguard.

He slept rough there for days before eventually making his way to the island's capital Willemstad. He now works as a welder.

An independent country of 160,000 people within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Curacao is home to 6,000 undocumented Venezuelans, according to the local government.

- Overcrowded detention center -

In separate reports last year, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch criticized the Curacao authorities over their treatment of Venezuelan immigrants.

It accused them of deporting migrants who may have a right to asylum given the dangers in their home country.

It cited Venezuelans who said they had been intimidated and mistreated while in detention pending deportation in Curacao.

Geraldine Parris, a Curacao lawyer who represents some of the migrants, said she had visited Venezuelan migrants in the facility where they were held. She said it was dirty and overcrowded.

"The problem with Curacao is that even though they know what is happening in Venezuela, they have not introduced a system for handling them," she said.

"We cannot present ourselves as a beautiful country of beaches and sunshine and be partners to international treaties when we are not practicing what we preach."

- Hard times in Curacao -

Curacao government spokeswoman Corinne Leysner said Curacao had opted out of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

She added that Curacao "does work as much as possible within the rules" of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to preventing torture and inhuman treatment.

Accepting asylum seekers "would mean providing these people with food, care and shelter, which is impossible at this moment as large groups of our population are also in need of help," she told AFP.

Leysner said Venezuela's economic decline has had an impact on Curacao, whose economy depends largely on Venezuela-linked oil refining, shipping and aviation activities.

The Dutch government wrote to the Curacao authorities last week offering support at "very short notice" to handle the influx of Venezuelan migrants.

The letter, seen by AFP, offers "technical assistance" to set up a system for processing asylum demands and training for immigration officers and police.

- $100 boat ride -

The campaigners say many of the Venezuelans have a right to asylum because of the dangers and threats facing them back home.

One 31-year-old Venezuelan migrant told AFP he came to Curacao after being kicked out of the police force for refusing to vote for President Nicolas Maduro.

He asked not to be named for fear of deportation.

"They called me a traitor to the homeland ... for thinking differently," he said. "Since I knew they had a file open on me, I decided to come here."

After being deported from Curacao once, he paid $100 to traffickers to make the boat crossing back to the island, where he now lives with his wife and five-year-old daughter.

In January 2018, at least four people died when a boatload of Venezuelan migrants sank on that same route.

"No human being is illegal as far as I am concerned," the ex-policeman, 31, told AFP.

"I trust in God that the situation in Venezuela will get better and we will go back to our country to rebuild it."