Published On: Fri, Apr 24th, 2020

Venezuelans in St. Maarten are hoping for quick repatriation

Group of Venezuelan Men Stranded in St. Maarten - 2020042301 JH

PHILIPSBURG — Because of the coronavirus, Venezuelans are stuck on St. Maarten, without money and without prospect of help. “In Venezuela we have more chances of survival than here,” said Carlos, 40, on behalf of a group of undocumented Venezuelans. “We hope that with the help of the Netherlands we can return to our family, or that St. Maarten will help us to get back to Venezuela.”

Anyone who needs food aid during the lockdown can register with the government. This applies to both residents and undocumented migrants. The government has received over 9,000 applications for a food package. When distributing the packages, women with children and the elderly have priority, according to Social Services.

St. Maarten hosts approximately 500 Venezuelans, almost only men, between twenty and fifty years old. They came to the island in 2018, after Hurricane Irma had pummeled St. Maarten, to earn dollars in the reconstruction and found work as bricklayers, tilers, electricians or as carpenters.

The government of St. Maarten has a policy of tolerance for Venezuelans. The police have no mandate from the Minister of Justice to arrest, prosecute or detain Venezuelans. The police leave them alone as long as no offenses have been committed. “We didn’t come to cause problems,” says Carlos. “We are here to support our family in Venezuela.”

Carlos rents a one-bedroom apartment with three other men. The rent of $ 600 per month is shared. The foursome has built two bunk beds in the bedroom. In September Nathaly and her one-and-a-half-year-old son Sebastian joined them. “I came to St. Maarten last year so that my husband could see our son,” said the 36-year-old mother. “When my husband left Venezuela, I was six months pregnant.” The housemates have built a room in the living room with plywood. Nathaly, her husband and their son sleep there. “I didn’t come to stay here, I wanted to go back in March, but the lockdown made that impossible,” said Nathaly. Meanwhile, the money for the ticket has been spent on groceries for the five adults and the baby. “We have food for another week.”

Some of sixty Venezuelans living in the Cole Bay area have completed a government registration form, but none have received a food package. “It is good that women and children are helped first,” says Carlos. “I think that is only logical.” Carlos worked until lockdown for a company in Les Terres Basses, on the French side of the island. His employer, an Argentinian, has informed him that he cannot do anything for him. “He did say I can get back to work as soon as the border opens,” says Carlos. “But if that takes weeks or months, I’d rather return to Venezuela.”

Group of Venezuelan Men Stranded in St. Maarten - 2020042302 JH

A stone’s throw from Carlos’s home, six men live in an apartment that can accommodate two, three people at most. The refrigerator is practically empty, except for two egg cartons and a can of milk powder. Oscar Garcia, 23, is looking worried. “In Venezuela we also have almost nothing to eat, but there is family there and you have the opportunity to share food. Here we have to stay at home.” The lockdown has been extended by the government by three weeks. “We can’t survive that long without food,” says Oscar. “I hope that Venezuela will send a plane, or that St. Maarten will help us.” He sighs, “Otherwise I don’t know anymore.”

Several Venezuelans are still entitled to money from their employer. Raul signed a contract with Taliesin Construction NV, a local contractor, on January 6. Although he is illegal on the island, Raul received an SZV card through his employer. But he hasn’t received the $600 biweekly salary, Raul says. “I ran out of money, didn’t even have a dollar left for the bus to Madam Estate, where I worked. Someone advised me to file a complaint with the government, but the employee was not present at the hour they gave me. At the second appointment I was told that no complaints were accepted because of the coronavirus. I cannot reach my employer. The secretary told me that she is at home and cannot do anything for me.” Raul is at his wits’ end. “For two months I have not been able to send money to my wife and daughters in Venezuela and I have nothing to eat myself.”

Group of Venezuelan Men Stranded in St. Maarten - 2020042304 JH

Illegal immigrants are often dealing with rogue employers, according to testimony from immigrants. Santiago (42) worked for fifteen days without payment. “The agreement is that payment will be made at the end of the week. But my boss said, “I’ll pay you next week.” That did not happen. Then the lockdown came and I was sure I wouldn’t receive anything.” He tells it calmly. “I have been on St. Maarten for almost three years and have already experienced this several times.” Shrugging: “I’m illegal, so what can I do?” He lives in Philipsburg, together with eight other Venezuelan men, a Nicaraguan, a dozen Dominican families, and a group of Colombian men and women. “I share food with my neighbors. If one has rice, the other has chicken and another has tomatoes, we will prepare a meal together and divide it.” Not everyone in the neighborhood is as patient as Santiago. “A truck with rice and water bottles arrived last week. Many people came to it. Some did not want to wait in line for their turn, and a fight ensued over the rice. Bags of rice fell on the ground and ripped open. It was chaos. Many people missed out on rice as a result.”

The 69-year-old Dominican Ysabel has lived on St. Maarten for 32 years. She’s experienced hurricanes Luis and Irma and Maria, but the COVID-19 storm is of a different order, she says. “I’m especially concerned about Venezuelans in my area. The men are all in the same situation and have no family here to help them. I know they would like to leave immediately. But how do they get back to Venezuela?”


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