How Trinidad and Tobago Expelled 16 Venezuelan Kids to the Sea

29 Venezuelan refugees, 16 minors among them, were missing for a day after the Trinidadian government put them in wooden boats back to Venezuela. They are safe now but the story hasn’t ended

An outrage displaying the depths of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

On Sunday, November, 22nd, 16 Venezuelan minors ranging four months to 14 years old, nine women and four men were sent back to Venezuela from Trinidad and Tobago, a little after 11:00 a.m. A yellow level weather alert had been issued by climate authorities. They were supposed to have a habeas corpus hearing, scheduled for that afternoon at 2:00 p.m. and then moved to 12:30 p.m., upon insistence by the lawyer handling the case, Nafeesa Mohammed. They were forced to leave before the hearing.

The women and children had been detained upon arrival, on November 17th, in the Chatham area and were taken to a cell in the Erin police station first and the Cedros police station on Saturday. Immigration officials refused to accept documentation like the children’s birth certificates and the proof of parents’ Trinidadian residence. They were put on two pirogues back to Venezuela one and a half hours before their emergency immigration hearing. 

“This requires a government intervention at the highest level for a full investigation into what happened and who gave the instructions for these children to be sent back. These are children. Special circumstances warrant a different approach and the high handedness that has been displayed in certain quarters and the disrespect that has been shown for our judicial and legal system it reeks of a breakdown in our institutions and disrespect for the rule of law,” said Mohammed. 

The Context

Just 11 kms off the northeast coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago has seen an increased flow of Venezuelan citizens escaping the crisis. Authorities estimated that around 40,000 Venezuelans were living in Trinidad and Tobago by 2018. In a small country with a population of just one million people, currently undergoing an economic crisis and a pandemic, Venezuelans have put a strain in Trinidadian healthcare and public services. 

During the last couple of years, we’ve seen increasing news of Venezuelans being abused by the authorities and suffering acts of xenophobia. There are well established rings of human trafficking from Eastern Venezuela to Trinidad, preying on immigrants and young women who are frequently victims of sexual slavery. While there are Venezuelans legally living and working in Trinidad and Tobago with no problems and sending money home, there are also Trinidadians taking advantage of their vulnerability, blaming Venezuelan women for breaking up families, or accusing Venezuelan men of introducing crime in the Caribbean nation. 

They sailed back to the island after their relatives hired a boat owner in Venezuela to take them from the Orinoco delta to Southern Trinidad. Neither the Venezuelan or the Trinidadian Coast Guard or Navy took part in the operation.

Certainly, there have been reports of Venezuelan gangs exchanging firearms for food with Trinidadians, and more commonly, armed robberies at sea, where Trinidiadian fishermen are victims of Venezuelan gangs in boats. Certainly, Trinidad isn’t used to receiving such a sudden, massive immigration, and its security forces have incurred in lots of abuses against Venezuelan civilians who are just trying to survive in a place where, contrary to our states of Sucre or Delta Amacuro, there are no shortages of everything, hyperinflation, or even drug dealers pushing you out from your village. 

The Rage

This event with the 16 minors expelled to those same waters where Chistopher Columbus thought to have found Eden in 1498 is the most recent in a story of mismanagement, abuse and vulnerability. Sadly, it won’t be the last, as long as the Venezuelan crisis persists. The public opinion in both countries is becoming more and more bitter on the subject, while the Venezuelan regime and the current Trinidadian government, in the center-left, get along. Trinidad doesn’t recognize Juan Guaidó as caretaker president.

While the whereabouts of the expelled migrants were unknown, Venezuelans took to social media to condemn and denounce the situation. The hashtag #DondeEstánLos16 (Where are the 16 children?) was trending all day in Venezuela. People on Twitter mentioned and replied to old tweets by Trinidadian Prime Minister Keith Rowley, some of them even insulting him, most of them just demanding answers. Citizens were outraged and AN deputies demanded the government of Trinidad and Tobago to protect Venezuelan refugees, especially those underage. 

Some people on Twitter turned to the frequent resource of reminding Trinidad that many people from there were “received in Venezuela with open arms” in the past. The same thing many Venezuelans say when any other xenophobic event happens in Colombia, Ecuador or Peru, without mentioning how those thousands of migrants from those countries in the prosperous Venezuela of the ‘70s and ‘80s were also subjects of harassment, distrust and, to some extent, hatred. 

Some guy even said on Twitter that “when decent Venezuela recovers its freedom” we should teach a lesson to Trinidad, by invading them, making them “pay for its crimes” and “civilizing them.” In the Trinidadian media, some citizens were commenting their outrage at the treatment given to those kids, and others were praising the government for keeping illegal aliens away.

The Outcome

After being missing and stranded for a day, all passengers returned to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday afternoon, Trinidadian press confirmed. Apparently they sailed back to the island after their relatives hired a boat owner in Venezuela to take them from the Orinoco delta to Southern Trinidad. Neither the Venezuelan or the Trinidadian Coast Guard or Navy took part in the operation. Some children presented severe dehydration, vomit, diarrhea and fever when they were found in Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. 


As Radio Fe y Alegría reported, while both governments were looking elsewhere and Venezuelans on social media were trashing Trinidad for the abuse, the relatives of the expelled migrants were focusing on getting them back to Trinidad.  

At noon on Tuesday, November 24th, the Trinidadian government offered a press conference where Security Minister Stuart Young said that Nicolás Maduro’s regime had never contacted them, that he knew nothing about the case and asked who had seen these children, who they were and demanded to see the birth certificates proving that they were minors. He said he’d seen what Juan Guaidó wrote, but that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Young issued the following warning: “To Venezuelans who are legally here we say: ‘If we find out you’re helping your undocumented countrymen, your permit will be revoked and you’ll be deported, too.”

Nina Rancel

Nina is an actress and comedian living in Bogotá. She loves reading and correcting people when they screw up, which is perfect for working as a copy editor at Caracas Chronicles, because she gets to do both.