“Pray for me and light a candle,” he told Génesis before bidding her goodbye and joining 30 other passengers crowded aboard the fragile vessel. They left the port of San José de la Costa just before dawn.
The boat never made it to Curaçao. It capsized close to the island’s southeastern coastline on January 10. Search and rescue operations led mainly by the Curaçaoan authorities were hampered because the Venezuelan government had ordered a temporary shutdown of air and maritime traffic with Curaçao and two neighboring islands a few days before. Rescue teams recovered only five bodies. The rest, including Jóvito, are still missing.
“He went for us, for our dreams,” Génesis said on a stiflingly hot day at their home in northwestern Venezuela. The couple could not afford to have the children they wanted, she explained. Now all Génesis can do is wait for news, her dreams of a family shattered.
Venezuela is in the grip of a human rights crisis that has forced people to make a desperate and hazardous 60-mile journey to Curaçao, a Dutch-Caribbean island, in search of safety and subsistence. Many are fleeing political persecution following a government crackdown on dissent that has led to the deaths of at least 120 protestors.
Some are leaving because they can no longer feed their families due to hyperinflation and chronic food shortages. Others have left in search of functioning health care and medicines that are no longer available in Venezuela. The shipwreck in January was a sign of just how desperate things have become.
Jóvito’s wife is now stuck in tortuous limbo without news from her husband. Meanwhile, the parents of 18-year-old Jeanaury Jiménez, whose body was recovered after the ship sank, are trying to balance their grief with worries about the future.
Jeanaury had been deported from Curaçao once before, and she promised her parents she would never repeat the risky voyage. But when her twin sisters were born prematurely, the family struggled to feed them. Jeanaury decided to return to Curaçao in the hope of finding work.
Days after Jeanaury’s body was found, her mother paced the family home in the coastal town of La Vela de Coro with the baby twins in her arms. She cannot find milk or formula for them. Their father stares at the floor as he explains that his truck driver’s salary is no longer enough to cover the family’s needs. Photos of Jeanaury hang on the living room walls.
While families like Jeanaury’s wonder where their next meal will come from, routes out of Venezuela have grown increasingly inaccessible. The cost of a flight or even land travel is too expensive for most people, while the intermittent closure of borders has led to the emergence of dangerous clandestine routes controlled by smugglers. Women, children, adolescents and indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to health and security concerns.
Many neighboring countries lack asylum systems to support Venezuelans when they arrive, and a number have tightened immigration controls on Venezuelans in recent years. In 2016, Curaçao Governor Lucille George-Wout made an inflammatory speech alleging “almost all the arriving persons are exclusively from the areas of delinquency, illegal job[s] and prostitution.”
People continue to leave, willing to risk discrimination and the dangerous voyage for a shot at a safer existence. Since 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 145,000 people from Venezuela applied for asylum abroad. Another 444,000 have applied for arrangements outside the asylum system that would allow them to live and work in a different country for an extended period of time.
The Razz family, from La Vela de Coro on Venezuela’s northwestern coast, knows better than most how dangerous the journey out of the country can be. Normelys, 34, lost her husband Danny in the fatal sinking on January 10. Her younger sister Nereida is still waiting for news from her husband, Oliver, who is missing. Both men were traveling to Curaçao in search of work, and the double tragedy has left the family in even more precarious circumstances.
Normelys remembered her last phone call with her husband Danny before he set sail. “He said to me: ‘Tell my daughters that I love them; where I’m going, I’ll be fine. Don’t be sad,’” she said. “His voice was that of someone saying goodbye.”
It is common for those who do make it to Curaçao to be arrested and deported and to make repeat attempts to get there again. Danny had been to Curaçao twice before and had even saved enough money to open a moto-taxi business back in Venezuela but ongoing financial problems drove him to flee for the island again.
A third Razz sister, Neyra, spent two months living on the island without papers in 2017. She would occasionally clean houses for money, but police raids were a constant worry. Eventually she was arrested, detained for two weeks and sent back to Venezuela.
Like many people, Neyra had gone to Curaçao in the hope of buying staples like food and medicine that are no longer available in Venezuela. She quickly found that things weren’t so easy for those without valid travel documents.
“My life there was horrible,” Neyra said. “I wanted to bring back medicine, food, but they don’t let you buy medicine even with a medical record. You feel totally powerless.”
Venezuela has ignored international calls to address the causes of the human rights crisis that’s forcing people to leave and has refused to accept international cooperation to guarantee access to food and medicines. Instead, the government is doubling down on repressive measures, making life unbearable for those who stay.
The Venezuelan state has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all Venezuelans, while the international community must provide Venezuela with the support to do so.
Neighboring countries share a responsibility to come up with regional solutions. Indeed, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has called on states to implement mechanisms for the protection and humane treatment of migrants and refugees. Peru, Brazil and Colombia have taken some steps toward this but much more needs to be done to prevent further tragedies.
Two months on from the shipwreck, the families of those who are still missing are urging the Venezuelan and Curaçaoan authorities to keep searching for them and to carry out DNA testing on bodies that have yet to be identified. They say their pleas have been met with silence.
“Venezuela is not okay,” Nereida Razz said. There has still been no news of her husband. But bereaved as she is, Nereida understands why Oliver had to leave.
“He left in search of something better, because living this way breaks your heart.”