The situation of Venezuelan refugees in the Netherlands Antilles is dramatic: According to a recent report from Refugees International, it is one of the worst in the region.

A delegation from the aid organization visited the island of Curaçao in February. They concluded that Curaçao doesn’t offer the growing number of Venezuelan refugees a single form of protection.

Ever since the start of the unrest in Venezuela some 56,000 people have made their way to the so-called ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao), the closest of which is less than 20 miles off the Venezuelan coast.

According to the Red Cross most of these refugees fled to Curaçao (25,000). However, the official number is unknown, since many of them are in hiding for fear of being arrested.

The Red Cross also said that Venezuelan refugees are on their own. This increases the risk of abuse, human trafficking and forced prostitution. In recent months, several other aid organizations expressed their concerns about the dire situation in the Netherlands Antilles, including the local Caritas, which offers humanitarian aid on behalf of the Church. According to Caritas, the biggest problem is the lack of an official migration policy. “The only policy is arrest, detention and expulsion,” said project manager Marugia Janga.

This is especially true for Venezuelans without any legal documents. Once arrested, they are locked up in so-called ‘refugee barracks.’

“There is no such thing as a right to asylum on the islands. Most of these people don’t get the chance to ask for international protection,” explained Janga. The reason for this is that Curaçao never signed the Geneva Convention on refugees and does not recognize refugee status.

All Venezuelans who end up being arrested have to buy their own ticket back. If they don’t have the money to do this, they remain in prison until family members or friends can provide the funds. If that doesn’t happen, the government and the consulate are asked to help, a process that takes months.

“And it is the final step,” said Janga.

According to Father Iván Dario Pérez, the head of Antilles Caritas, the situation is aggravated by the lack of an official policy.

“This situation causes many social problems. For example, the growth in illegal work, human trafficking and the abuse of workers. I don’t know if the government understands that these problems are caused by the lack of policy.”

Pérez said that Caritas seeks to work together with several other aid organizations.

“We talked to the government of every island to come to a collaboration. The goal is to resolve this problem,” and that’s not easy, says the priest.

“They understand that there is a problem, but not much is happening. There is a plan in place for natural disasters happening on the islands, but no such thing as a humanitarian plan,” he said.

The flow of refugees is an enormous challenge to the ABC Islands, especially to Curaçao and its 160,000 inhabitants.

The crisis in Venezuela has left a heavy mark on the economy. The shutdown of the oil refinery in Curaçao, caused by the situation in Venezuela, was a heavy blow to the island and caused a rise in unemployment. Currently 26 percent of the people are unemployed, and the rate of youth unemployment is around 40 percent.

Experts say it’s clear that Curaçao cannot handle the inflow of refugees on its own. Still, the inhuman treatment of refugees and the lack of humanitarian policy is raising eyebrows. The Ministry of Justice refused to comment on the situation.

“The government doesn’t need any more problems,” explained Bishop Luigi Secco of Willemstad, Curaçao.

“But if refugees are coming this way, we should at least give them the chance to ask for asylum in other countries.”

Secco himself was recently involved in the release of 23 Venezuelans who were held in the refugee barracks.

“It’s incomprehensible that they were locked up like criminals and didn’t have enough food or clothes,” the bishop said.

He tries to help as much as he can.

“I act as a guarantor for two refugee soldiers whose lives are in danger in Venezuela. They were locked up for a long time. Now they’re living in a small apartment. It’s the little things that help.”

Several parishes are also helping Venezuelan refugees, Secco said.

“Venezuelan priests are active in three parishes. They celebrate Sunday Mass in Spanish and help their fellow countrymen whenever they visit the parish. Many refugees are in hiding but come to the parishes for help.”

Father Pedro Duarte agrees. He works in the city of Jandoret.

“There are several Venezuelans living in my parishes. We give food to poor parishioners and some of them are now from Venezuela.”

Because many of them came to Curaçao without their families, the parish has become their family now, Duarte said. “They are all alone over here and the Church helps them in their loneliness.”

But the Church offers more than material help, said the priest. It offers spiritual help as well.

“Because of their situation, many Venezuelans come and listen to the catechesis in our parishes. They then also become a part of our parish community. Amidst all suffering, these people are looking for an answer. That’s what’s happening here in Curaçao.”

Duarte sees that the faith guides many Venezuelan parishioners.

“The situation is dramatic, but I see how they grow in understanding about what’s happening to them. In the light of faith, they start to understand the meaning of all this. They learn that God is behind all this. It gives meaning to their suffering,” he said.

The priest has many Catholic friends and acquaintances in Venezuela and is touched by their stories.

“Up until a few years ago these people had a good life in Venezuela. Due to their current situation they see life as a pilgrimage. When you go on a pilgrimage, there isn’t much you can take with you. They understand that you don’t need much in life. There is happiness to be found in a simple and fragile life,” he said.

According to Duarte, many Catholic families in Venezuela have tough choices to make.

“Should they spend what little money they have on food or on a bus ticket to go to Mass? They tell me they find peace in listening to God’s Word. The Word becomes true food for their souls. Seeking the Lord in the Sacraments becomes a necessity, not an obligation. ‘Without having that I cannot go on in this situation,’ I hear them say,” the priest said.

To the priest, this in itself is the Good News:

“That many believers do not despair, but accept their situation, is a strong testimony to all Venezuelans. ‘We’re staying here because God has called us to this situation to testify of his love,’ they’re telling me. That’s the hope and the relief proclaimed by the Gospel. That Christ has overcome death and that it’s possible to peacefully accept suffering. That’s what they’re experiencing right now.”

This article was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad on October 25th  2019. It was translated for Crux by Susanne Kurstjens-van den Berk.

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