For Venezuelan Refugees, There’s No Safe Haven in Curacao

The former Dutch colony in the Carribean is a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. But when it comes to refugees, there’s little help from The Hague.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R) shakes hands with Curacao Prime Minister Eugen Rhuggenaarh (L) ahead of a meeting in The Hague on June 30, 2017.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R) shakes hands with Curacao Prime Minister Eugen Rhuggenaarh (L) ahead of a meeting in The Hague on June 30, 2017. (JERRY LAMPEN/AFP/Getty Images)

On clear days, Venezuelans can see the island of Curacao, which lies just 40 miles off its coast. Though no official data exist, roughly 15,000 Venezuelans have fled to the small southern Caribbean island to escape their country’s political and economic crisis. But instead of being welcomed as asylum-seekers, they’ve been jailed—or are in hiding, afraid of being put in detention. Aid groups have reported widespread immigration raids by police, harassment, and illegal deportations.

“Curacao was awful,” said Tamara Taraciuk, who has researched the rights of Venezuelan asylum-seekers for Human Rights Watch. “The overall response of surrounding countries has been pretty good, but Curacao really is on the opposite side of the trend.”

And Curacao is not alone in bearing responsibility for the inhumane treatment of fleeing Venezuelans. The island’s colonial ties to the Netherlands have never been fully cut. In 2010, Curacao opted for membership in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, joining the Netherlands with Curacao and two other Caribbean countries, Sint Maarten and Aruba. The kingdom is mandated to deal with foreign policy, including ensuring the protection of human rights.

Last October, Curacao’s prime minister, Eugene Rhuggenaath, swallowed his pride and turned to his European “big brother” for help in an address to Curacao’s Parliament. He invoked the kingdom’s solidarity provision that says all its nations have an obligation to help and assist each other.

On Jan. 16, Curacao sharpened its October statement, requesting capacity and money to keep Venezuelan “mass migration” in check; Rhuggenaath asked for help with maritime searches and the expansion of detention facilities while respecting the core minimum international obligation not to send back Venezuelans who are at risk of torture. But Dutch government officials in The Hague have been stalling, saying migration policy is an internal Curacaoan affair—leaving its former colony in the lurch.

This isn’t the first time that awkward ties between the Netherlands and its former colonies have hampered progress. Since Hurricane Irma ripped apart the island of St. Martin, which is divided between French Saint-Martin to the north and Dutch Sint Maarten to the south, on Sept. 6, 2017, virtually no rebuilding has started, according to the Court of Audit and the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

The Hague promised support and contributed 550 million euros, more than $600 million, but chose to channel about 85 percent of it through a World Bank trust fund with stringent conditions to avoid Caribbean corruption—bypassing Sint Maarten.

And last November, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced a donation of more than $4 million to the Colombian office of the International Organization for Migration—to provide for Venezuelan migrants’ needs. “How is it possible that the Netherlands chooses to donate all this money to our neighboring country instead?” asked Geraldine Scheperboer-Parris, a Curacaoan lawyer who specializes in immigration.

The Dutch government’s flimsy solidarity with the other members of the kingdom is reminiscent of Europe’s methods of handling its most recent refugee crisis. Within the European Union, a blame game between Europe’s northern and southern nations has put EU unity at risk; the wealthier nations argued that Italy and Greece—disproportionately burdened when a million asylum-seekers hit Europe in 2015—needed to fix their self-inflicted, messy asylum procedures. Rome and Athens, burdened with hundreds of thousands of arriving migrants and a shortage of funds, responded with accusations of betrayed solidarity and ducking responsibilities.

In comparison, the number of Venezuelans who fled to Curacao, about 15,000, is tiny. The Venezuelan crisis has pushed 3 million people to flee the country, of whom one-third have been absorbed by Colombia. But “the number of them on Curacao is totally disproportionate,” said Scheperboer-Parris. About 10 percent of the island’s population now consists of Venezuelan asylum-seekers.

And, like Italy and Greece, Curacao has been in heavy weather economically itself. Its GDP has been contracting for three years—largely due to the collapse of trade with Venezuela—and youth unemployment has risen to more than 30 percent.

Human Rights Watch has noted the disproportionate effect of the Venezuelan exodus on the southern Caribbean island nations of Trinidad and Tobago and Aruba—which both have taken in roughly 40,000 and 20,000 Venezuelans, respectively—as well as Curacao given their geographic proximity, small size, and limited capacity to take in asylum-seekers.

But of these islands, Curacao leads the pack in human rights violations. Refugee protection is absent; asylum-seekers are jailed directly in inhumane circumstances and forcefully returned to a country in the throes of a political and economic crisis.

Curacao has not issued a single asylum certificate since July 2017, when it took over handling claims from the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “There’s simply no asylum policy or procedure in place,” Scheperboer-Parris said. Instead, Amnesty International reported, it has an “active removal strategy”—in the words of Curacaoan government officials. Immigration raids—often violent—are conducted and lead to the jailing and deportation of Venezuelans. In 2017, about 1,200 people were sent back, according to Curacao authorities.

But the Venezuelan government banned travel between Venezuela and the islands of Curacao and Aruba in January 2018, allegedly to halt illegal trafficking of gold and copper to the islands. All crossings, including forced returns of Venezuelans, were prohibited.

That time The Hague did intervene—on the grounds that international affairs are a “Kingdom matter.” In April 2018, Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok traveled to Venezuela to strike a deal with Tareck El Aissami, who was then Venezuela’s controversial vice president—and who’s now on both the U.S. and EU sanctions lists for drug trafficking and torture—to reopen the gates. Blok attained his goal for Curacao to resume imports of fruits and vegetables and deportations of “economic migrants” to Venezuela. “Fortunately, that’s possible again now,” he told the media outlet Curacao Nieuws.

Last month, the U.N. Committee Against Torture called out the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the “appalling living conditions” of Venezuelan refugees in Curacao’s barracks—overloaded cells, bad hygiene, lack of access to health care, and sexual assaults by officials who have not yet faced charges.

Meanwhile, Venezuelans in Curacao have tried to stay out of the hands of police at all costs. They’ve gone underground on the island and blended into the Curacaoan community—eased by the historically large share of Venezuelans there. “In a weird way, many Venezuelan asylum-seekers are facilitated by Curacaoans,” Scheperboer-Parris said. “They get a small apartment somewhere, a simple job.”

On the surface it’s quiet. “If you walk around the island, you won’t notice a thing,” said Arjen van Rijn, a law professor at the University of Curacao who specializes in the kingdom’s constitutional law. But one visible phenomenon stands out since the Venezuelans arrived: the rise of so-called trago (“shot”) girls—Venezuelan women who work as waitresses in bars with small rooms in the back. “It doesn’t stop at serving alcohol, that’s evident,” Scheperboer-Parris said. “Most of these girls get pregnant, but they’ve got nothing. Every week Curacao’s Ministry of Justice sends police to arrest and detain these girls, and the next week a new flow of trago girls is at work.”

With persisting budget deficits, a pile of socioeconomic problems, and plummeting export rates, Curacao has consistently argued it’s unfit to cope with the Venezuelan influx. The response from Dutch government officials has been that the island has autonomy and must deal with the problem itself. “I’d say that’s a denial of reality,” van Rijn said. “Supervision over the respect for human rights is a kingdom affair.” And—however counterintuitive—the kingdom is the entity answerable for human rights abuses on Caribbean soil before the European Court of Human Rights.

The Hague hasn’t been altogether quiet. Last year, the Dutch government did provide the Curacao authorities with 132,000 euros, about $150,000, for improved conditions in detention centers. But that’s a drop in the bucket—and a testament to a relationship often characterized by distrust and conditional solidarity.

On Jan. 22, Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, announced his government’s help in shoring up Curacao’s financial soundness—a move widely considered as a disguised European intervention to retake control. The suspicion doesn’t come out of nowhere. “There’ve been quite some cases of corruption on the islands,” van Rijn said.

In the mean time, the pile of alarming human rights reports has sparked some movement in The Hague—amplified by an adopted motion filed by the Dutch Senate calling on the kingdom to assist Curacao in protecting Venezuelans who’ve fled their nation. But the motion doesn’t have force of law; as long as there’s no vote of confidence attached, the government is free to ignore it.

Last week, in a carefully crafted letter addressed to Human Rights Watch, the Dutch government wrote that it’s been working with Curacao on a functioning asylum system and exploring financial assistance. “We need money. But more so, we’re in need of knowledge and expertise to build a humane asylum procedure and shelter,” Scheperboer-Parris said. “There’s plenty of empty government buildings that could be used for other purposes.”

The UNHCR has been offering its help in developing an asylum procedure and—subsequently—resettling refugees in other places to help ease the pressure on Curacao. Officials in The Hague will be sure to vouch for resettlement elsewhere, too; if Venezuelans were granted refugee status in Curacao, their legal stay would eventually turn into Kingdom of the Netherlands—and thus EU—citizenship after five years. Though it’s a lengthy process, Venezuelans could slide through the EU’s backdoor and travel freely.

For the Venezuelans trying to survive in and out of Curacaoan barracks, the picture is similarly grim. But with the Curacaoan strategy of striving for the fastest departure of those in need and deterring new arrivals—and a Dutch government reluctant to help with more than a paltry sum—the best survival strategy is hoping for help in the growing underground world of Curacao and, in the longer run, a European Court of Human Rights verdict to turn the tide.

Lizan Nijkrake is an Amsterdam-based journalist and Munk fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto. Twitter: @LizanNijkrake

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