The Nicolas Maduro government dismissed the complaints of relatives, and it seems that closed any research about the Guiria shipwreck although, Venezuela and Trinidad share the responsibility in the protection of human rights of the victims who traveled from Güiria last December 6. For example, governments could have coordinated a safe return of the people who traveled in the least two ships.
On December 25, the minister of Justice, Carmen Melendez, signed a statement, in which it reads that “the last December 6 occurred a shipwreck of a ship with the name Mi Refugio -My Shelter- approximately 11 nautical miles from the departure point. On the boat was a group of people who were going to Trinidad and Tobago to spend the Christmas holidays.”
Although this version has not been confirmed, it appears that the Trinidad and Tobago authorities did what they have done before: return the Venezuelan migrants, violating international treaties. For Venezuela, the Trinidadian version seems to be enough.
The Coast Guard from the island assured that their officers did not intercept any boat coming from Venezuela. Meanwhile, the Primer Minister, Keith Rowley, dismissed as a lie the version that Venezuelans were expelled from Trinidadian territory.
However, since the news about the disappearance got known, the relatives of the migrants assured that the ships did arrive at the Trinidadian coasts.
The reason to believe it? The first bodies were found very close to the Güiria port. “The fact that the first bodies were found only six nautical miles from the Venezuelan coast means that they were returning,” said the relatives, convinced that their relatives did set foot on the island territory.
Despite the complaints and the evidence, the right to know what occurred with the boat has been denied. Even the governor of the Sucre state, Edwin Rojas, said not to know what happened with the shipwreck. He also admitted he has any capacity to control the illegal departures.
The Attorney General, Tarek William Saab, declared that his office would investigate the Güiria shipwreck, presuming a human trafficking crime.
Almost immediately, were detained Luis Ramón López and Luis Martínez. However, both are already in their homes. Additionally, according to complaints from the residents of Güiria, the seven soldiers arrested for extorting Luis Martínez are free and were transferred to other zones.
Venezuela has the first responsibility
Images of migrants precariously reaching the shores of another country gets generated every day: they arrive at the Canarian Islands, at the coast of Italy, the United Kingdom, and The United States. What is not seen is countries forcing migrants to return, and that the origin countries do not help to provide safe transportation to that return, risking them on a deadly journey.
Stories of shipwrecks, disappearances, and complaints about missing people have been documented between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago since 2017. Only in 2019, three ships were reported as missing between Venezuela and Trinidad & Tobago.
“The shipwreck of December 12 is not the only one. There have been several before that we are aware of in the media. And others that we probably don’t even know about, respond to broader patterns of forced displacement of Venezuelans,” says Betilde Muñoz, director of the inclusion social department from the Organization of American States (OAS) and an expert in migration and forced displacement.
For Erika Vergara-Rosas, from Amnesty International, in the case of Venezuela, “people are fleeing not only from hunger and the lack of medicines amid the complex humanitarian crisis. In some cases, others flee from persecution given the violent repression documented in Venezuela.” That is why countries must respect the principle of no forced expulsion and protect persons that scape for persecution or massive human rights violations.
The thing is that no matter the risk, Venezuelans continuing fleeing. Only in November 2020, the authorities from Trinidad & Tobago deported more than 200 Venezuelans, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
According to the most recent report cases, a group of 29 people, including 16 children, were escorted out of Trinidadian waters, and some returned to the island afterward. As of November 30, UNHCR registered 20,143 refugees in Trinidad and Tobago, meaning 200 less than in October. Of that total, 85.8% are Venezuelans.
The 1951 Convention creates obligations in countries that receive refugees; one of them is not to return them to the country they are coming from.
“There is an obligation to give them the right to request that recognition and not to return it when they are processing that recognition. Even if the judicial process to define the refugee status gets delayed, receiving countries cannot return them,” said Muñoz.
The expert in human rights and multilateral relations, María Alejandra Aristeguieta, explains that according to the principle of Non-refoulement if migrants are in danger in their country, they cannot be returned. If the host country argues that it does not have the resources to serve migrants, there are at least two ways to act.
“The Trinidad and Tobago authorities had two options: the first was to speak with the Venezuelan consulate and have them take charge of searching for the migrants and repatriating them safely. The second is to speak with a third nation and allege that they can not assist them and, if an agreement gets reached, transfer them to their new destination,” described Aristeguieta.
“Communication between Trinidad and Tobago and the Venezuelan consulate is fluid. I have confirmed that information directly from the United Nations offices. One hypothesis is that they (government) want to use them as an example. The level of cruelty of the government gets tattooed in their DNA. They want to make this tragedy an exemplary case,” argued the internationalist.
But regardless of immigration status, all countries that receive migrants, refugees or not, must guarantee their human rights. “The states are obliged to give them protection. Protection involves giving them their documentation, recognizing their rights, regularizing them,” says the OAS commissioner for the Venezuelan exodus, David Smolansky, which would make it easier for Venezuelans to access health, education and to find a job in Trinidad and Tobago.
What do Trinidad and Tobago say?
Amnesty International, the Caribbean Center for Human Rights, and more than 20 other organizations have written two open letters to Prime Minister Keith Rowley, asking that his government recognize the seriousness of the human rights violations from which the Venezuelan population is fleeing. To date, the letters have not been answered.
For Erika Guevara-Rosas, the government of Trinidad & Tobago is putting political interests above human rights.
David Smolansky said that the government of Trinidad and Tobago must change its policy about Venezuelan migrants. He pointed out the examples of Colombia and Brazil, which have an open borders policy.
“If they are treated differently and given support and opportunities, the island could rather benefit in terms of its economy. Exile represents a great opportunity for Latin American and Caribbean countries to receive a population that wants to work, that wants to undertake, that wants to study, and all that contributes to the economy. Trinidad & Tobago is privileging its political relationship with Maduro,” he said.