UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) says Venezuelans are keeping hope alive on the margins of the Caribbean resort island of Curaçao.
According to the IOM, Willemstad, the capital, is a draw for Venezuelan migrants and tourists in Curaçao.
IOM told the story of, Genesis, 22, and her partner Jose [last names omitted and first names changed for protection reasons], who, in 2022, squeezed aboard a small, overloaded boat captained by “people smugglers” and packed with migrants bound for Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean 65 kilometers (40 miles) off the Venezuelan coast.
Seven months pregnant at the time, Genesis hoped for a new life working as a housekeeper where, despite living precariously on the margins of society, she could make more in one day than in one month back home.
“Anything she saved would be sent to her mother, who was struggling to provide food and clothes for the four-year-old daughter Genesis left behind,” IOM said. But en route, the vessel’s aging motor died in heavy swells, and the boat began to sink and the 31 passengers, including Genesis, who did not know how to swim, were terrified of drowning.
“It was horrible, a lot of water came into the boat, everyone was screaming,” Genesis said recalling the dramatic eight-hour journey.
“I was afraid of being eaten by the sharks, being crushed to death on the rocks, or disappearing at sea,” she added. “I just cried, prayed for my baby, and held on to my partner.”
IOM said its Missing Migrants Project (MMP) has documented the deaths and disappearances of at least 321 migrants in the Caribbean last year, a record since MMP began its work in 2014, and an 84 per cent increase from the 180 recorded in the previous year.
Thus far in 2023, IOM said at least 120 migrants have died or disappeared in the Caribbean.
“We are calling for more action to prevent deaths and protect migrants who are embarking on these routes, regardless of their status and at all stages of their journey,” said Karen Wouters, IOM Project Coordinator in Curaçao.
“Prevention begins with regular migration pathways, defending the rights of families to stay together and responding to the needs of migrants in vulnerable situations,” she added.
IOM said Genesis and Jose came from La Vela de Coro, a bedroom town on the Venezuelan coast where most homes are empty.
Many of their owners have set off to sea for Curaçao, a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, IOM said.
It said more than 7 million people have left Venezuela in recent years as a result of the political turmoil, socio-economic instability and the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
IOM said the vast majority have sought new lives in the Americas, including the Caribbean.
IOM said while most Venezuelans cross land borders into Colombia or Brazil, for many in coastal towns, Curaçao, a popular destination for European and American tourists, Aruba and the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago are much closer.
Due to a long history of mutually beneficial commerce and travel, tourism and migration ties, IOM said many mainlanders in Venezuela have friends and relatives in the Caribbean islands who can provide housing and job connections.
Today, IOM said more than 14,000 Venezuelans live in Curaçao – equivalent to almost 10 per cent of the island’s population of nearly 154,000.
IOM said many flew in as tourists, but some are making the perilous sea voyage.
Although Curaçao’s Venezuelan population is tiny compared to Colombia, 2.5 million, and Peru, 1.5 million, IOM said the island is home to one of the highest numbers of displaced Venezuelans relative to its population.
From Curaçao’s postcard-perfect beaches, IOM said one can sometimes see the coast of Venezuela.
IOM said at least 321 deaths and disappearances of migrants in the Caribbean were documented in 2022.
Arriving with nothing but faith, IOM said Genesis and Jose are gradually building a life in Curaçao and raising their infant son.
IOM said it provided the young couple with rental assistance, cash vouchers, food, clothing, and referral information to local partners who can assist them with other services.
But IOM said the life of a Venezuelan migrant in Curaçao is not easy.
It said cultural and linguistic differences, and the lack of a formal pathway to obtain work and residence permits or Dutch citizenship mean the state’s migrant population live in constant fear of being deported.
“We must be hidden. This is the life of the irregulars here in Curaçao,” said Genesis, who rarely leaves her one-room house in a modest neighborhood in Willemstad.
A trained mechanic, IOM said Jose is a construction day-laborer, earning enough money to send back home. Genesis will start cleaning homes soon, IOM said.
“Venezuelans like me are coming to Curaçao for a simple reason: it’s easier to survive here,” she said, sitting with her eight-month-old son on a beach crowded with European holidaymakers where, when on a clear day, she can see the coast of her country.
“I came with the intention of going back in the long term,” Genesis added. “Though our lives are better here, our hearts are always back in Venezuela.”