Overloaded with cargo, a small boat flipped over in the turbulent waters off the coast of Trinidad, tossing seventeen people into the sea. Too far away from land or help to escape the inevitable, the 17 passengers drowned.
A few months earlier, in December 2020, another boat capsized while attempting the high-risk crossing from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago. Several days later, 36 bodies were found floating near a Venezuelan fishing village, including several children.
Since 2017, when Venezuela’s social and economic crisis worsened, over 40,000 Venezuelan nationals have fled to Trinidad, making the treacherous journey across fifteen miles of churning water, as many as fifty people heaped onto one motored dinghy. Part of the stretch is called Bocas del Dragón (Dragon’s Mouths), notorious for shipwrecks and a plethora of criminal activities, including drug trafficking, human smuggling, and piracy.
Many boats, upon reaching Trinidad, are immediately turned around, so migrants must attempt to evade Trinidadian immigration authorities by landing boats in secluded areas that can be even more difficult to reach. Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized the government for its “egregious” treatment of migrants, which has included separating families.
Since a COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in late April, many businesses have closed, and those Venezuelans who had jobs lost them, making them unable to pay rent. The UN Refugee Agency said earlier this year that most migrants in Trinidad “were self-sufficient until the pandemic hit” and now, one in three migrant children goes to bed hungry, and women battle a swell in gender based violence. In recent months, Venezuelan migrants living in Trinidad and Tobago have faced a rising tide of evictions as jobs dried up, leaving hundreds homeless.
In May, a family of Venezuelan migrants, four adults and twelve children, living in an abandoned shipping container, were relocated to a house with the help of humanitarian aid organizations and a local church. A mother had given birth inside the container two weeks before. The International Organization for Migration told VICE World News that the family likely chose to forego expensive housing and make a life where they could, in an attempt to ensure their children did not go hungry. It was better shelter than living on the street, yet the roof of the shipping container was porous, and rain seeped through.
“Certain landlords say they don’t want to have Venezuelans in their buildings. They make up excuses,” Jewel Ali, director of the Trinidadian branch of the International Organization for Migration, told VICE World News. Some migrants are forced to move every few months, said Ali.
Migrants told VICE World News that often the only jobs available to Venezuelans are part-time gigs delivering food. Lockdown rules prohibit deliveries, so those jobs are risky, and do not pay anywhere near enough to make rent. Some tenants have been forced onto the streets, while others pack into apartments that begin to resemble dorms.
“There are sixteen people who live in this house, and it has two bedrooms,” Cleidelys, a migrant in Trinidad, said. “There’s no privacy. All of the women pee together.”
Xenophobia against Venezuelans has worsened during the pandemic, especially on social media platforms, after a rumor spread that an influx in Venezuelan migrants caused a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Online hate speech soared after a Venezuelan migrant tested positive for the Gamma variant (first identified in Brazil).
Even the Trinidadian Police Department alleged that Venezuelan migrants were to blame for the epidemic on the island in July last year. The department posted a glaring, red flyer on Facebook that said “illegal immigration can cause a new wave of COVID-19,” and encouraged citizens to report undocumented migrants using their app.
In January, Trinidad’s Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, trading blows with the Organization of American States, said in a statement, "Trinidad & Tobago is currently under the latest assault, using nameless, faceless people armed with innocent children, to try and force us to accept their understanding of 'refugee status and international treaty' where a little island nation of 1.3 million people must be expected to maintain open borders to a next-door neighbour of 34 million people even during a pandemic.” He alleged that many migrants were not refugees, but “gun runners, drug dealers, human traffickers and South American gang leaders.”
“They think all of Venezuela is going to come over and overwhelm the country,” Ignacio Smith, a Venezuelan activist in Trinidad, told VICE World News.
Venezuelans, though vulnerable to the virus due to cramped living conditions, are only allowed to seek medical care in a case of emergency. “I have heart problems, so I’m scared of what could happen. I went to the hospital because I was sick with COVID. I was having arrhythmias and I couldn’t breathe and they sent me home,” said Marisol, a migrant in her fifties, living in a group home.
Marisol’s twenty-year-old daughter told her mother that she narrowly escaped rape after a taxi driver pulled into an alley and attempted to rape her in the backseat of the taxi. “She only got away because she’s an athlete,” Marisol said.
Young Venezuelan women often plucked from several towns on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast are tricked by the thousands into entering Trinidad with the promise of stable employment. Upon arrival, smugglers reveal the employment is at strip clubs and underground brothels.
“They see Venezuelan women and they think we’re all easy,” Cleidelys said. “I’ve been asked for my price on the street before. Now, I just don’t go out.”
Venezuelan migrants told VICE World News they wanted to leave Trinidad and resettle somewhere with more job opportunities, less risk of sexual assault, and more public acceptance of refugees. Carlos, a migrant in his forties supporting his wife and three-year-old daughter, has been robbed, fired, and evicted several times. “I am a professional. I used to be a professional!” he said.
During the lockdown, without income, his family survives on the kindness of strangers.