As 2020 marked the fourth year of the Venezuelan crisis, which has affected over 5.4 million refugees and migrants globally, the number of Venezuelans fleeing their country, continued to grow. The number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide had an increase of 8,000 per cent since 2014, mainly in the Americas. As of December 2020, an estimated 195,979 Venezuelans had sought protection, basic rights and essential services in the Caribbean. From this rapidly increasing figure, in 2020 an estimated 17,000 settled in Aruba, 17,000 in Curaçao, 114,500 in the Dominican Republic, 23,300 in Guyana and 24,000 in Trinidad and Tobago. In the Dominican Republic, the number of Venezuelans in the country significantly increased from 41,000 to 114,500, not due to massive influx but due to the fact that, using migratory balance, the national authorities calculated that the real figures were actually higher than previously estimated. In 2020, 28,452 persons have been provided with some form of assistance, 2,495 in Aruba, 2,380 in Curaçao, 4,324 in the Dominican Republic, 8,501 in Guyana and 10,752 in Trinidad and Tobago. Partners estimate that by the end of 2021 over 170,000 Venezuelans and 36,000 people from host communities will be in need of assistance and protection in the Caribbean. This total of over 214,00 estimated population in need in the Caribbean in 2021 represents an increase of almost 10 per cent in comparison with the 194,600 figures for 2020.
Throughout the Caribbean, this situation has further strained different countries with already stretched services, raising concerns and integration challenges, as governments and host communities responded to the needs of Venezuelans, in addition to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the island of Aruba hosted the world’s largest number of Venezuelans displaced abroad relative to its population (1 in 6) while Curaçao hosted third largest proportion of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, with 1 in 10 persons. As Caribbean R4V countries adopt different approaches to respond to the influx, some have imposed visa requirements,4 adding more challenges. As a result of these restrictions, Venezuelans have been forced to resort to dangerous boat travels and are exposed to human trafficking and smuggling risks, as well as risks at sea, which have claimed the lives of many people, while others have gone missing.
Additionally, many Venezuelans in the sub-region arrived with tourist visas and were left with few options to obtain a residency or work permit, having no access to basic services or employment, thereby leaving them particularly vulnerable to trafficking and various forms of abuse and exploitation.
With reports of the first cases of COVID-19 in the sub-region in March 2020 and the subsequent closure of borders, lockdown, curfews and restrictions, the situation of Venezuelans has become increasingly dire, as many have lost their livelihoods, faced evictions and food insecurity and were confronted by exacerbated protection risks that were already present in many sub-regional countries. By the end of December 2020, the reported numbers of COVID-19 cases for each of the Caribbean countries in the sub-region increased significantly. Aruba had 6,068 cases of COVID-19; Curaçao 4,464; Trinidad and Tobago 7,273; and Guyana 6,588. The Dominican Republic reached a total of 183,282 cases by the last day of December.5 Preventative measures in the Caribbean sub-region such as wearing of masks and physical distancing continue, with less strict protocols compared to mid-2020. All the above-mentioned countries reopened airports, except Trinidad and Tobago. Aruba implemented a negative COVID-19 test requirement and a 10-day quarantine to enter the country. Curaçao advised travelers to avoid entering the island, and Guyana reopened its borders to international flights on 12 October, requiring negative PCR tests to access the country. Discussion of plans to administer the COVID-19 vaccine took place T&T and Guyana, with plans to include non-nationals.
In mid-2020, elections were held in some of the Caribbean countries. The Dominican Republic and Guyana both held Presidential elections and the new government authorities took office in August 2020. Both administrations demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with R4V partners. In the Dominican Republic, the new President worked to prevent a declaration of unconstitutionality of the Decree 262-20 that granted Dominican nationality through naturalization, and which was approved in February 2020, granting naturalization to 750 people including Venezuelans. In Trinidad and Tobago, general elections happened in the same month, resulting in the previous government being re-elected.
Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, lockdowns and confinement measures resulted in severe hardships for host populations, refugees and migrants, causing a sudden loss of income and undermining their capacity to meet basic needs. Although measures were being relaxed, due to the length of time that measures have been in place, refugees and migrants were faced with heightened health and protection risks such as evictions and exposure to exploitation and violence, including gender-based violence (GBV). To illustrate this, in total, throughout the sub-region, one R4V partner received 522 queries on GBV through its hotlines during 2020. Mental distress caused by isolation and socioeconomic difficulties continued as well. In light of this dramatic change of context, national platforms developed preparedness and response plans to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the Caribbean. They also adapted the delivery of emergency assistance (food assistance, hygiene kits, non-food items and shelter support) and psychosocial support while minimizing direct contact using remote interviews, cash-based interventions (CBI) and vouchers.