CARACAS, July 17 (Reuters) – The families of Venezuelan migrants lost in the Caribbean sea are demanding their government investigate the disappearance of their loved ones after years of stasis.
At least 150 people have gone missing in connection with a series of vessels which have sunk between Venezuela’s north coast and islands in the Caribbean since 2015, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration.
Of the at least 7.3 million Venezuelans who have fled economic and social crisis in their homeland, at least 100,000 have traveled via sea to island neighbors like Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba and Curacao, according to the UN.
“We ask for speed, four years have passed (…) the investigation isn’t being carried out,” said Jhonny Romero, president of a family advocacy group for the missing 150 migrants, as he and other families protested outside the prosecutor’s office in Caracas in June.
Just one body has been found from the nine sunken vessels from the cases represented by the group, said Romero, whose 27-years-old son Jhonny de Jesus went missing along with 32 others as they attempted to reach Curacao in 2019.
Sea travel is one of the deadliest options for desperate migrants searching for new opportunities the world over, with thousands drowned each year between Africa and Europe via routes, including the Atlantic ocean and Mediterranean sea.
It is not clear if sea crossings in the Caribbean are more deadly than overland routes which take migrants through the dangerous Darien Gap, a stretch of jungle connecting Colombia and Panama through which hundreds of thousands cross each year.
While five men were arrested and await trial in connection with the boat which carried Romero’s son, the bereft father echoed demands by other families for investigations to reveal what happened to their relatives and to lead to convictions of those responsible.
Neither the attorney general’s office nor the navy responded to questions from Reuters about the missing boats, the charges against the arrested men or the volume of illegal passages, among others.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
Passengers, many who cannot swim, often travel at night without life jackets, one person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Boat pilots drop passengers off around 30 meters from shore, the source added. In Aruba, migrants must scale rocky outcrops of up to four meters high and many fail, drowning as a result they said, though bodies have not been found.
There are no investigations in Aruba or Curacao into the whereabouts of Venezuelan migrants missing during sea crossings, an official with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
“We regrettably don’t have figures of people who are suspected to have gone missing because we haven’t found any bodies,” said Shalick Clement, spokesperson for the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard, which monitors the waters of Aruba and Curacao.
The coast guard of Trinidad and Tobago did not respond to questions.
“We went to Caracas to look for answers,” said Ana Arias, a 43-year-old housewife whose daughter Luisannys Betancourt went missing on a boat journey in April 2019.
The boat was found abandoned on an islet, but Luisannys was not one of the 10 occupants – out of 38 – who were rescued.
Families are looking for “clarification of the events, for answers,” said Carolina Bastardo, whose pregnant daughter and two grandchildren were traveling on a boat which sunk in May 2019.
Wreckage of the boat, the Ana Maria, was never found, while a Venezuelan believed to be the pilot fled Grenada before an investigation could be conducted, police said.
“We’ve had four years of full of silence, of pain – it’s desperate,” she said.
Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Mircely Guanipa in Maracay
Writing by Oliver Griffin
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