Once again, dozens of Venezuelan migrants who had set off for nearby Trinidad over the weekend on a rickety, overloaded boat are feared drowned after their boat capsized in waters between the South American mainland and the Caribbean island.
And once again bodies are beginning to wash ashore along villages on Trinidad’s west coast. Local and Venezuelan authorities say they suspect that organized human traffickers and gangs associated with illegal mass migration for cash were behind the latest attempt to smuggle more than two dozen persons across the seven-mile but dangerous Gulf of Paria between the two states.
In recent years, thousands of Venezuelans have made the journey, most of them by boat, to Trinidad, seeking a better life and fleeing from economic hardships at home. Local officials estimate that there are more than 40,000 Venezuelans in Trinidad.
Current and past administrations in Trinidad have done their best to accommodate the Venezuelans, organizing health care and schools for them and urging them to formally register with state institutions. Security officials and the coastguard have been keeping a watchful eye for organized smugglers and report only limited success in this area.
The Guardian newspaper reported that the vessel with at least 25 persons, including women and children, left the Venezuelan state of Delta Amacuro bound for an organized landing area in Trinidad. The vessel never made it as it capsized in the strait. Venezuelan officials say they have rescued seven persons but fear that the majority of those onboard might have perished at sea. They have also recovered several bodies from the waterway.
In early December, a vessel packed with 20 people sunk in the same strain, killing 14 people, while another also capsized with more than a dozen aboard as its occupants had tried to reach nearby Curacao.
Among nearby Caribbean Community countries, Trinidad by far has been forced to absorb most of those heading north to the region. Authorities have complained about the strain on state systems and the risks of managing large groups of people arriving without any COVID-19 PCR negative tests and with no previous medical records. The island’s borders have been closed for most of the past year because of the pandemic.
Thousands have also crossed over the small river border with Guyana, settling in interior communities in the northwest or making their way to urban areas like the capital and other large districts.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 6 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years to escape hyperinflation, power outages, shortages of food and medicines as well as gangs which have taken advantage of the country’s crisis situation in recent years.
Meanwhile, the newspaper quoted Venezuelan Citizens Security official Noel Valderrama as urging Venezuelans to avoid being encouraged by smugglers to risk the voyage on ill equipped and overloaded boats. It is just not worth it he contends.
“You should not travel illegally; there is no guarantee of reaching your intended destination, nor is there anyone to ensure your safety and protect you. If despite the risk they run, the high sums they pay for leaving and the illegality of the trip, they decide to do so, they must take care of themselves, it is incredible that they pay so much money and not even have a lifeguard, it is almost a suicide,” he said.
Some opposition legislators have questioned the coastguard’s ability to properly monitor the sea border especially now that these have been closed in the midst of the corona pandemic.