“Reception of refugees in the region” is a central concept in the foreign policy of the Dutch government. It means that the Netherlands wants to financially support countries that accept refugees fleeing from a conflict in a neighboring region rather than enabling refugees to migrate onwards to Europe. Usually, the regions where refugees need to be sheltered are far away from the borders of our Kingdom. Suddenly, however, the Netherlands Kingdom has become the region itself.
Refugees from Venezuela are arriving in small but growing numbers on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Curaçao is a remnant of colonial history, in that it is an independent country that continues to be part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The response to the fleeing Venezuelans now arriving on the island is highly inadequate and it is recognized that human rights are being violated on a large scale.
A recent report of Refugee International states that: “In displacement crises, the quality of services and assistance typically varies from one host country to another, but the fate of Venezuelans seeking refuge on the small island of Curaçao, only 40 miles from the coast of Venezuela, could very well be the worst in the Americas”. It is high time that the Netherlands, as the main country of the Kingdom, starts to make a serious effort to ensure that refugees are properly accommodated in their own region.
Curaçao, an island state with 160,000 inhabitants, is struggling with major problems. The exploitation of the Curaçao oil refinery by the Venezuelan oil company brought jobs and foreign currency. And so did wealthy Americans and Venezuelans who came to spend their money in the paradise-like tropical tourist resorts.
Now everything has changed. Due to American sanctions against Venezuela, the refinery has almost come to a standstill, hotels have closed their doors, and the Insel Air airline was declared bankrupt in February. Twenty-six percent of the population is unemployed. The crisis in Venezuela is deeply affecting the economy of Curaçao, and its public finances are running out. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, less than eighty kilometers away from Curaçao, a political, social and economic tragedy is taking place. The international community is preparing for the large-scale provision of humanitarian aid. Distraught Venezuelans are leaving the country.
And that’s how the problems arise on Curaçao. Under pressure from a complaining population, a faltering economy and declining government revenues, the government in Willemstad is trying to prevent the arrival of undocumented Venezuelan migrants. Instead of recognizing their desperate situation, the Venezuelan migrants are being portrayed as criminals.
For generations, people have travelled back and forth between the South American mainland and the Caribbean Islands off the coast. Boats brought fish, fruits and seasonal workers. This has always gone on openly, outside of official rules and without international supervision. Besides fish and fruit, the boats also bring drugs and weapons and facilitate human trafficking. Nowadays they also bring more and more refugees from Venezuela.
The Venezuelans, who could be entitled to international protection under international law, are suffering the consequences. They do not receive shelter or protection. Instead, they are treated as criminals who need to be expelled as soon as possible. The Curaçao government does not acknowledge that this entails grave human rights violations. The government is resorting to fear mongering and repeatedly states it needs to act against illegal migration in order to avoid a potential pull effect, which might cause the country to attract even more migrants.
The role of the Netherlands
Curaçao is an independent state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is responsible for its own asylum policy and migration issues. However, the Statute of the Kingdom stipulates that the states have a duty of care for each other, especially in times of emergency. Moreover, foreign and defence policy is formally a responsibility of the Kingdom as a whole. If there are human rights violations within the Kingdom, the Kingdom is responsible. However, the Netherlands is currently failing to extend support to the forced migrants who are entitled to protection. Observers in Curaçao are advocating a more hands-on attitude on the part of the Netherlands: less distant and more in cognizance of the spirit of the Kingdom.
As early as July 2018, the Advisory Council for International Issues (Adviesraad voor Internationale Vraagstukken / IAV) warned of legal inequality within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and pointed out the importance of respect for human rights. The potential impact of the Venezuela crisis on Curaçao forces the Kingdom to take a pro-active stance to protect Venezuelan refugees. Everyone understands that in the current situation, Curaçao can neither handle the influx with its own resources nor uphold refugee law. It is time for civil servants from Curaçao and the Netherlands to jointly set up a functioning asylum procedure for Curaçao and make it work!
Protecting Venezuelan refugees is in the first place a responsibility of the state of Curaçao. Nonetheless, the Netherlands should step in and support the country to provide a decent level of care to the despair migrants from Venezuela. The Netherlands has always favoured reception of refugees in the region; it is time to walk the talk.
Image Credit: Cookie Nguyen. The image was cropped.
About the authors:
Peter Heintze is an independent researcher, as well as coordinator of the KUNO – platform for humanitarian knowledge exchange in the Netherlands.
Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.
Dennis Dijkzeul is a Professor in Conflict and Organization Research at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany.