Beneath a veneer of luxury, leisure and comfort, the Caribbean tourist island of Aruba hides another world, where migrants from crisis-torn Venezuela are denied their human right to asylum and refuge.
Aruba now has more refugees and migrants from Venezuela per local population than any country in the world, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency: 159 displaced people per 1,000 inhabitants.
Situated about 30 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela’s Paraguaná Peninsula, Aruba is a small island of 180 square kilometres and around 110,000 inhabitants. Formerly a Dutch dependency, it’s now an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Semi-desert and infertile, it’s always been a place of trade and commerce with the mainland.
It’s also been a favourite destination for prosperous Venezuelans seeking the tranquillity of its luxury hotels, the fun of its casinos and the relaxation of its white-sand beaches – its official nickname is ‘one happy island’. Fishermen, fruit and vegetable traders and small-time smugglers crossed daily from Punto Fijo, the nearest point on the Venezuelan mainland. But all that has changed.
Past the avenue of giant hotels that runs along the north-west coast are the millionaires’ vast beachside mansions. Some of them are still under construction. One of the most eye-catching, near the California lighthouse at the top of the island, is perched on a hill. It employs a dozen workers, most of them Venezuelan migrants with irregular status.
UNHCR says around 17,000 Venezuelans had arrived in Aruba by mid-2021. Many work in construction or basic services. They keep a low profile for fear of actions by the border police, including detention and the threat of deportation.
Around six million Venezuelans – a fifth of the country’s population of 30 million – have moved abroad over the past decade. Most of this migration has occurred since 2017, according to a report released this month by the International Crisis Group, “prompted by political tumult, economic and social unrest, and a deep humanitarian crisis”. Most have moved to Colombia (nearly 2.5 million) as well as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. The Venezuelans who arrived in Aruba are relatively few, but they were pushed by the same economic and political suffocation as everyone else.
The causes of Venezuela’s deep economic and political crisis are multiple, and include government incompetence, political oppression, and Western sanctions and asset freezes. (The US and UK have made little secret of their desire to destabilise the leadership of the oil-rich country, both through soft power initiatives and in at least one case an attempted coup.)
By 2019, when a presidential crisis erupted after a contested election, and more sanctions were applied, Aruba’s wealthy Venezuelan visitors had been replaced by a mass influx of US tourists and the virtual dollarisation of this small territory. On some of the streets leading to the huge resorts, it feels as if you’re closer to Cancún or Miami than the shores of Venezuela.
‘The sharks would have eaten us’
To be a Venezuelan migrant in Aruba is not easy. Take the case of Ronald Blanchard, an industrial safety specialist and former resident of Coro, the capital of Falcón state, just across the Gulf of Maracaibo from Aruba. Blanchard worked for several years at the Venezuelan state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). The oil industry is still king in a country sitting on the largest-known oil reserve in the world.
PDVSA went through several management crises, ended up in military hands, suffered rapid deterioration, experienced strikes and repression, and laid off thousands of workers in successive waves, some of them politically motivated.
When Blanchard was made redundant, he opened his own service company, but the collapse of the economy caused the initiative to fail. After experiencing unbearable shortages and great hardship that threatened his family, he decided to emigrate, at the end of 2019. The border between Venezuela and Aruba had already closed by then, so Blanchard travelled first to neighbouring Colombia and then flew from Guajira to Aruba.
Many of his fellow migrants don’t have the opportunity or money to fly and have to reach Aruba by sea – in other words, on a people trafficker’s boat. In theory, this is a short crossing that takes only four to five hours, but it’s fraught with danger.
As it does across Falcón state and the northern tip of Colombia, the wind blows constantly and uninterruptedly, causing permanent waves. The current in the channel separating Aruba from the mainland is powerful, and sometimes too much for the low-powered outboard engines used by traffickers.
Alex Medina, also from Falcón state and Blanchard’s friend, told openDemocracy that the journey can be deadly. Medina knows the sea crossing well because in the good old days, when Venezuela was a prosperous country, he had traded with Aruba, selling fish and fruit.
Relatively few Venezuelans migrated to Aruba, but they were pushed by the same economic and political asphyxiation as everyone else
Medina also decided to migrate to the island. He stayed for a few months as an illegal migrant until the authorities found him and hastily deported him back to Venezuela. Like many of his compatriots, he decided to return – by sea.
He paid for his passage by promising to carry cartons of Marlboro tobacco, but there were problems and the captain forced his passengers to jump off the boat. Once in the water, Medina was in great danger. Fortunately, the current was favourable and, using the packets of tobacco as a flotation device, he managed to swim the considerable distance to the Aruban coast.
He avoided being pushed “towards the Dominican Republic”. If that had happened, he says, “the sharks would have eaten us right away.”
Hostile asylum policy
The threat of detention and deportation is a daily reality for illegal migrants in Aruba. Some of those who face political persecution in Venezuela try to apply for asylum, but this is granted in dribs and drabs by the authorities. Although Aruba is an autonomous country, the government in the Hague is still in charge of foreign policy and security.
According to HIAS, an international Jewish humanitarian organization that provides vital services to refugees and asylum seekers in a number of locations around the world, more than 2,000 Venezuelans applied for asylum in Aruba in 2019, but the vast majority were denied. This leaves them in a desperate situation, without access to basic health services or legal employment, meaning they’re forced to make a living in the informal market. Those granted asylum can’t get a work permit either, but at least they don’t have to fear detention or deportation.
There is some help for Aruba’s 17,000 Venezuelans, thanks to UN agencies and other refugee organisations. Venearuba Foundation/Casa del Venezolano, which receives funding from the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), provides humanitarian support, training and legal advice to the most vulnerable.
Strikingly, there is no record of any European aid, in a country that grants Dutch nationality and EU passports to its citizens.
There are individual initiatives too. Mallory Medina, a Venezuelan who’s lived on Aruba for 25 years, operates from a shop in a deserted shopping mall – the economy, which relies almost exclusively on tourism, is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. Mallory sells donated clothes to needy Venezuelan families at the cost of $1 per item, and then uses the money to distribute meals to the hungry.
Mallory is particularly proud of her work pre-COVID. She recounts how, with the help of the Aruban authorities and UNHCR, she arranged some humanitarian flights to voluntarily repatriate Venezuelan refugees who, faced with the tremendous difficulties of settling on the island, had decided to return home. The project was halted by the pandemic and the closure of the Venezuelan border.
The determination to return home, whether urgent or not, is shared by most Venezuelan migrants in Aruba, says Blanchard. Some, like him, do manage to earn good money, which they send back to their families, but the precarious conditions, constant fear and virtual impossibility of obtaining work and residence permits are decisive deterrents to any plan of living on the island.
The dream of the ‘happy island’ can become a nightmare. There are barriers of all kinds, including language: Papiamento is the local Creole language, English the working language and Dutch the official administrative language – though Spanish is also widely spoken. The administration’s priority seems to be to dissuade Venezuelans from their dream of emigrating to this alleged paradise by placing an insurmountable bureaucratic wall in front of them.
The Arubans – and the Dutch – are afraid to relax their hostile migration policy because less than 30 kilometres away is a country that is systematically expelling its citizens. Any news that could generate a ‘pull’ effect could trigger a refugee crisis, which would undoubtedly upset the fragile balance of an economic system based on sand, sun and the Caribbean Sea, and which ensures its “180 square kilometres of happiness” – as the official propaganda claims.
In the informal economy beneath the luxury hotels, lavish residences and giant cruise ships, Blanchard continues to exercise his rediscovered carpentry skills in the island’s construction sector, which makes good use of this highly skilled and very cheap but precarious and illegal Venezuelan labour force.
If he fails to legalise his situation before November, when he will have been on Aruba for three years, he is determined to return to Venezuela.
Blanchard is also an amateur singer of llanera, Venezuelan folk music. He drowns his deep nostalgia for his beloved homeland with songs full of emotion. Accompanied by a cuatro (a small guitar), gazing at the sea that separates him from his family and friends, he sings his favourite song: “For better or for worse / this route has fallen to me / and what can I do / if I have to lose / I’m not resigned yet / let me keep wrangling, I’m willing to win…”
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