The Venezuelan migrant community in T&T is calling for an investigation into a shooting at sea on Sunday which left one-year-old Yaelvis Santoyo dead and his mother, Darielvis Sarabia in hospital nursing a gunshot wound.
The two were part of a group of migrants which included 17 adults and ten children that boarded a pirogue in Tucupita, bound for T&T.
However, as the contingent entered local waters during the wee hours on February 6, the TT Coast Guard reportedly attempted to intercept the vessel and force it to turn back towards Venezuela.
As officers on board the TTS Scarborough responded to the illegal border entry attempt, the captain of the vessel reportedly sought to evade the coast guard even as it continued heading to shore.
In a release, the TTCG said, “All available methods were used including the use of the loud hailer, ship’s horn searchlight and flares, to try to get the suspect vessel to stop, however, the vessel continued to evade TTS Scarborough.”
The Coast Guard claimed warning shots were fired in keeping with standard protocols but the vessel did not stop, following which officers reportedly shot at the pirogue’s engine.
During the ensuing melee, Santoyo—who had been cradled to his mother’s chest, was discovered unresponsive and bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head, while Sarabia was also injured.
A former Coast Guard official said all reports so far indicate that the Coast Guard executed their protocols correctly, with the first being the siren and light hailing the vessel to stop, followed by warning shots to the stern and bow and then the engine to bring the vessel to a complete stop.
The official said these manoeuvres are high risk and can lead to causalities and even death if the vessel does not adhere to the command to stop.
Guardian Media spoke to relatives of those aboard the vessel who are now detained at the Heliport, Chaguaramas.
Gabriel Martinez said his mother, Lesbia Saaverdra; his sister, Kelielvus Rodriguez; and his daughter Briannelys Martinez were on the vessel coming to Trinidad.
His story contradicts that of the Coast Guard as he claimed his family messaged him on Saturday night to say they were adrift off the coast of T&T, waiting for the tide to rise so they could approach the beach, but that the Coast Guard had attempted to capture them and the boat captain had tried to evade authorities —following which gunshots were heard and it was discovered that the baby and the woman were both shot.
Photo of Ya Elvis Santoyo and his mother Darie Elvis Eliagnis Sarabia with other children before they left Tucupita, Venezuela for Trinidad and Tobago.
Founder/Managing Director, La Casita Hispanic Cultural Center, Andrienna Browne said, “Everyone is concerned about it. We are concerned as to what will happen with these people and we have to arrange resources for those who are now detained at the Chaguaramas Heliport, and we are looking at the Government at this time to help with food and medication. As a community and an organisation we will also be seeking help for them from other organisations.”
She said this group of migrants had faced extreme trauma as a child had been killed while the mother was injured and remained hospitalised. Checks yesterday revealed Sarabia remained in a stable condition at the Sangre Grande Hospital up to late yesterday.
Browne said groups such as hers and others are willing to work with government in these matters.
Both Browne and Sofia Figueroa Leon, of the Social Integration Projects of the Caribbeans, said their respective organisations would do all they can to assist the family members who are residents in Trinidad.
Guardian Media understands the father has been living in Trinidad for the past four years, but his immigrant status is not known.
A human rights attorney resident in Canada, has also been liaising with the Santoyo family on behalf of Leon’s NGO.
The illegal crossings by Venezuelan migrants has been magnified in the past few years as many are braving the high seas in search of a better life due to economic hardships in Venezuela.
Brown said, “These people are risking themselves no matter what, because it is either they die here or they die in Venezuela.”
“It is hard to see and understand what these migrants are facing…and I think we need to put our feet in their shoes and understand what they are facing”, she added.
“Most Venezuelans here now want to reunite with their families and this is what we are facing right now. This situation is the same as a family took the chance to come across because the family have opportunities here and they just wanted to reunite”.
UNHCR deeply saddened
This latest incident has sparked international interest and attracted the attention .of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR); the International Organisation for Migration (IOM); and UNICEF who said they are deeply saddened, “by news of the death of a baby during an interception at sea off the south-east coast of the island of Trinidad on Sunday”.
Dr Eduardo Stein, Joint Special Representative of UNHCR and IOM for Venezuelan refugees and migrants said, “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and convey our heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones who are grieving this loss and a speedy recovery to the injured. Nobody should have to lose their life in their search for safety, protection and new opportunities.”
He added, “This incident highlights the plight faced by people on the move during desperate and dangerous journeys to safety.”
The Convention on the Rights of the Child state all countries must safeguard the rights of all children on their territory, irrespective of their nationality or status.
UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Jean Gough said, “No migrant child should ever die, whether travelling with their parents or alone. No mother wants to put the lives of her children at risk on a small ship in the deep sea, unless she has no other option.”
He added: “Two in three Venezuelans on the move are women and children. This tragic event is a stark reminder that they are the most vulnerable among the vulnerable. They deserve special attention, protection and safety – anywhere and any time.”