Most of the migrants who undertake the short but treacherous journey from Venezuela to Trinidad through the Gulf of Paria, are desperate. The same can be said for most migrants around the world.
But for Darie Elvis Eliagnis Sarabia and her baby, Ya Elvis Santoyo, who were among migrants on board the vessel involved in Sunday’s encounter with the T&T Coast Guard, the search for a better life ended tragically.
Ya Elvis did not survive the journey. He was shot and killed. His mother, who was injured, is now recovering at a local hospital.
Such tragedies are common in the Gulf of Paria, the body of water that separates T&T from Venezuela and which is just 15 kilometers at its narrowest point.
Since the explosion of Venezuela’s migrant crisis in 2018, thousands have embarked on that risky crossing, often on overcrowded, barely seaworthy vessels along a route infested with pirates and smugglers. Many, like one-year-old Ya Elvis, don’t survive the journey.
In December 2020, 25 refugees and migrants from Venezuela, including children, were on board a boat that capsized en route from the Venezuelan coastal town of Guiria. The year before, three boats were reported missing between Venezuela, Trinidad, and Curacao---another favoured Caribbean destination for migrants---with the loss of at least 80 lives, according to information from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Of the approximately 5.4 million migrants from Venezuela around the world, 16,000 are officially registered to live and work in T&T. However, many more are regularly putting themselves at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers who extract sums of money in US dollars to take migrants on perilous journeys across the Gulf of Paria.
In some cases, particularly for vulnerable women and girls lured with promises of good jobs, making it safely on to T&T soil, leads to exploitation and abuse.
Human traffickers, known in the underworld as coyotes, profit from illegal connections on both sides of the Gulf. Most of the migrants they are paid to sneak into this country, arrive from Sucre and Delta Amacuro, two of the poorest state in Venezuela.
The migrant crisis has resulted in many logistical and social challenges for the T&T government, particularly in the absence of a coherent policy for the treatment of migrants and refugees.
Centuries of historical ties between T&T and Venezuela have been shattered by this migrant crisis. Goodwill has been replaced by frightening levels of xenophobia and suspicion and the situation has been made worse by the elevated levels of criminal activity in the waters between the two countries.
But often overlooked are the humanitarian dimensions of this crisis. Sunday’s tragedy exposes the deficiencies of the current policy of intercepting and deporting migrants who continue to arrive by the boatloads, not deterred by the risks.
A better system must be found to address this problem. With guidance from the UNHCR and other agencies working around the world with migrants and refugees, efforts must be made to tackle this crisis and reduce the risks in the turbulent waters of the Gulf of Paria.