JENSEN LA VENDE
The 82 Venezuelans repatriated to their home two weeks ago can’t be found.
Sunday Newsday spoke with a human rights organisation in Venezuela which said they are experiencing difficulties in finding the 53 men and 29 women who were dropped off at Caracas on April 21 and have not been seen or heard from since.
Melissa Martinez, the wife of Steven Martinez, one of the men sent home, said she did not know whether he is alive or dead. His relatives in Margarita have had no communication with him either.
Sunday Newsday was told the 82 are either locked up in prison for supposedly seeking asylum in TT, which observers said reflected negatively on the Nicolas Maduro government, or are being detained at police stations. Not all of those sent home had sought asylum, and National Security Ministry Edmund Dillon had said in Senate that only three were asylum seekers. He said this following a meeting with officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR later said they were unable to verify how many of the 82 had sought asylum since they were not given the names of the Venezuelans by the National Security Ministry.
Martinez said she does not want to think about what her husband may be going through in Caracas having spent all his life in Margarita. She said the couple returned to TT two years ago after living in Venezuela became too difficult. While here, her husband did construction jobs with his uncle and had visited St Lucia before returning to TT. Six months ago, he was held by police in a road block and handed over to the Immigration Department. Since then he remained locked up at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) as he had no passport, which he claimed he lost, had no work permit and was in the country beyond his allotted time.
Martinez said she found out her husband was sent home two days after. She said she visited the IDC on April 23 after dropping off two of their three children to school and when she asked to see him, she was told he was one of the 82 people who voluntarily returned to Venezuela from where they had fled harsh economic challenges.
“Since he has gone I had to lie to my children and my mother because my mother is a heart patient and she keeps asking for him and I tell her he is okay in IDC. My children keep asking why daddy haven’t called this week because he calls every week to speak with them but I tell them he didn’t get a phone,” Martinez told Sunday Newsday.
The mother of four said since her husband’s return, she has been worried but trusts in God that he is alive and well, because that is all she can do. His relatives had no word from him or any officials in Venezuela about his whereabouts. The Venezuelan Embassy has offered little assistance in locating the 30-year-old, who Martinez believes may be sleeping on the streets of Caracas and doing odd jobs to earn money to pay for his way to Margarita.
“I am feeling like a fish out of water. I have no money to go to Venezuela to look for him. He does not know Caracas. I am not in a financial position to help him. I feel lost. I am not giving up. I will see him again one day. All I what to know is what happened and why is he not contacting us,” said Martinez, who turns 30 tomorrow.
An official of the Human Rights Centre of Andres Bello Catholic University in Venezuela has said they have been unable to get information about the 82 Venezuelans from Caracas authorities.
“So far we haven’t had any contact with them, apparently they still have relatives in TT and have fears for possible retaliation. We are trying to persuade them (relatives) to let us take their testimonies under confidentiality,” the official told Sunday Newsday.
A journalist in Caracas said he too has not been able to get information on the 82, saying them may be in prisons or maybe trying to cross into Brazil.
Following the exercise, the Geneva-based UNHCR said it “deeply regrets” the repatriation. Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, said that “forced return of this group” was of “great concern” and TT was in breach of international law.
Amnesty International’s Americas director Erika Guevara Rosas wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley criticising the way in which the 82 Venezuelans were repatriated. In the letter, Guevara-Rosas said millions of Venezuelans are fleeing an unprecedented human rights crisis and are in need of a life jacket, “not to be sent back to a country where they may face torture or other grave human rights violations”.
Rowley facilitated a meeting with UN officials following a “vigorous and detailed” teleconference with UN Secretary General António Guterres at the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair last Tuesday, where Rowley expressed his “discomfort” with the remarks made by the UNHCR against TT.
TT’s Ambassador to the UN Pennelope Beckles-Robinson made a request on Rowley’s behalf to speak with Guterres. During his conversation with Rowley, Guterres acknowledged TT has an excellent record with the UN in treating with all forms of migrants.
As such a high powered team from Geneva, will be coming to meet with Government to ensure that the right facts are put forward and to investigate claims that locally-based UNHCR officials misrepresented last month’s repatriation of 82 Venezuelans. No date was given on when the UN team will arrive in TT.