The recent interceptions of boats carrying migrants towards the Dutch Caribbean again reveal lucrative human smuggling and trafficking routes as more than 7 million Venezuelans flee their country.
On September 27, the Dutch Coast Guard intercepted two vessels carrying Venezuelan migrants. The first, headed to Curaçao, was carrying 14 adults and five children. The second, traveling to Aruba, had launched from Paraguaná in Venezuela’s Falcón state and was carrying 28 people. At least three vessels headed to the islands from Venezuela were stopped by Dutch naval forces that month, according to Jhonattam Petit, a journalist in Falcón, which faces into the Caribbean. Each migrant paid $500 for the journey, Petit said.
Two days before the interceptions, opposition party the Royal Alternative Party (PAR) wrote to Curaçao’s Ministry of Justice to express concern over the recent increase in cases of human trafficking and illegal trafficking of minors to the island. The coast guard and police “documented several instances of boats entering Curaçao illegally” in the last few weeks, the party wrote.
“These vessels have been frequently associated with illicit activities, such as drug and weapon smuggling, often involving underage individuals. Notably, a 5-year-old child was discovered aboard one of these boats,” the PAR letter said.
Earlier in September, the Curaçao Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning about an increase in cases of child trafficking between Venezuela and the Caribbean island.
“Trafficked children range in age from four to 15 years old and are often transported in boats that also carry drugs and firearms on board,” the prosecutor’s office said.
This phenomenon is not new. The US State Department has documented the issue of human trafficking in Curaçao since 2017.
“As has been reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit both domestic and foreign victims on Curaçao. In Curaçao, undocumented migrants, especially a significant population of Venezuelan nationals, are vulnerable to both sex and labor trafficking,” the US State Department’s 2023 annual report on human trafficking report stated.
The report also expressed concern about Curaçao’s weak institutional efforts to curb human trafficking and its inability to establish protection protocols for victims, most of whom are Venezuelan migrants.
According to a report by R4V, a UN platform monitoring the crisis that puts the number of Venezuelans who have left the country at over 7.7 million, the migrants are also exposed to human trafficking on the neighboring Caribbean island of Aruba.
InSight Crime Analysis
While most coverage of Venezuela’s migration crisis has focused on the horrors migrants face at the hands of criminal organizations along the Daríen Gap, the Caribbean remains an overlooked human smuggling route where criminal groups exploit migrants’ vulnerabilities.
Like in other places, human trafficking groups on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast deceive migrants, telling them they will be given jobs once they arrive at their destinations. But when they arrive, traffickers often force their victims into labor or sex work. Many of the victims are adolescents or children traveling alone or with a family member, according to experts.
As of June 2022, at least seven people, including a Curaçao bar owner and a police officer, have been sentenced to prison for their roles in recruiting Venezuelan women from Falcón to work as waitresses or “drinks girls” at bars, and then coercing them into prostitution.
According to investigators, the people charged were part of a human trafficking group that had managed to build a network of 160 “drinks girls” and sex workers in just 18 months.
R4V figures show that Curaçao has received around 14,000 Venezuelan migrants and Aruba around 17,100. While these numbers represent a very small percentage of the millions of Venezuelans who have left the country since 2015, they are significant for these two small islands, representing about 7% and 15% of the total population of Curaçao and Aruba, respectively.
Although authorities on both islands have warned of the risks of Venezuelan migrants being recruited by organized crime organizations, no concrete figures on victims of human trafficking are available.
One source who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity remarked on the lack of security surveillance around the island: “The boat that was carrying five children was intercepted because the mother of one of the children got desperate in Curaçao and informed the police. But that boat would have [illegally] entered peacefully – it’s not like there is a military deployment all the time,” they said.
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