Several Caribbean island nations and the United States have come under fire from humanitarian groups and U.S. politicians for deporting Venezuelan migrants and refugees home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The government of U.S. President Donald Trump deported hundreds of Venezuelans through Caribbean island Trinidad and Tobago this year, according to human rights groups, who estimate some 258 people have been sent back in recent months.
The stealth deportations - as they have been dubbed by advocates - could violate U.S. and international laws and policies, politicians and human rights groups say.
U.S. Senator Bob Menendez is calling on Trump’s administration to provide details of the previously undisclosed deportations through the Caribbean nation, with specifics on how many Venezuelans were shipped back back to a country where many fled political persecution, hunger and insecurity.
Venezuela has been severely economically crippled since 2015, and nearly 5.5 million migrants and refugees have since left, says the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). There is ample evidence of unlawful executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture in Venezuela in recent years.
Elliott Abrams, the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Venezuela, acknowledged in February that some deportations of Venezuelans were continuing. But in August, he said that it was not safe to return Venezuelans to their country of origin and said that the administration was not currently deporting them.
But evidence suggests otherwise. In the most recent case, 93 Venezuelans were reportedly sent back to their country on September 18 from Trinidad and Tobago. That prompted over 20 humanitarian and human rights organizations to call on the island nation to protect Venezuelan migrant rights and to break ties with the Trump administration in the deportations.
“As your government may be aware, most people who return or are deported to Venezuela are placed in quarantine centres, many of which are under the control of the police and the military,” a joint letter to Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Keith Rowley said. “These entities have been involved in a policy of repression since at least 2014, and as the UN has indicated in its findings, some of their leaders may be responsible for crimes against humanity.”
Human Rights Watch told VICE News that sending back asylum seekers “openly violates the principle of non-refoulement”, one of the most basic protections for refugees in international law.
“Deporting Venezuelans back to a country where the government is brutally cracking down on opponents and with a humanitarian emergency that predates the COVID pandemic puts the lives and health of deportees at risk,” Tamara Taraciuk Broner, deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said.
VICE News requested comment from Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of National Security but did not receive a response.
Other Caribbean nations have also come under scrutiny. The Dutch islands of Aruba and Curaçao have also deported Venezuelan migrants back home.
“It is imperative that the government of Trinidad and Tobago and other countries in the region ensure Venezuelans have access to legal status to afford them protection in a land to where they fled precisely to end the abuses they were suffering at home,” Taracuik said.
The United States has placed sanctions on Venezuela - which is governed by socialist President Nicolás Maduro - including the suspension of direct flights between the two countries in recent years.
“It is shocking that the Trump administration pursued these deportations after a May 2019 Department of Transportation suspension of air service between U.S. and Venezuelan airports, due to the economic and political crisis in Venezuela,” said Aviva Shwayder, a spokesperson for humanitarian non-profit, Refugees International, in a statement.
U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden used the news as an opportunity to blast Trump on Twitter, saying Venezuelans should have been granted temporary protected status to block their removal.
“It’s abundantly clear he has no regard for the suffering of the Venezuelan people,” he said in October.
Some Caribbean island countries have used the coronavirus pandemic to justify turning away migrants and refugees, to the dismay of humanitarian organizations.
“No one should be forced back to a place where they are at risk of serious human rights violations,” said Louise Tillotson, Amnesty International’s Caribbean researcher.