photo: Tim van Dijk

PHILIPSBURG – Almost six hundred Venezuelans have fled to Sint Maarten. They are staying on the island illegally but are not afraid of being deported by the authorities. A group of them is desperately seeking the government’s help in obtaining the necessary papers to make their stay legal as long as Maduro is in power in their homeland.

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by Tim van Dijk [English subtitles]

They’re almost exclusively men. Most of the Venezuelans arrived on the French side of Sint Maarten as tourists. They started their journey by taking flights from Caracas to Panama City continuing on to the Dominican Republic, after which they flew to Guadeloupe. In Point-à-Pitre they boarded flights to Saint Martin. Very few of them arrived in the country as tourists through the Princess Juliana airport on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten.

“Curaçao and Aruba are closer, the ticket is also cheaper. But when you arrive at the airport and you present a Venezuelan passport, you’ll almost certainly get turned away,” says one of the undocumented Venezuelans. “We heard through the grapevines that Sint Maarten allows Venezuelans to stay, that you won’t get picked up.”

The police is aware of the increase in the number of undocumented Venezuelans on the island. “It’s a delicate matter,” says spokesperson Ricardo Henson. “The police has not received any specific instruction on the matter from the Minister of Justice. The force isn’t required to find these people.” Henson confirmed that the Venezuelans arrived on Sint Maarten through the French side. “We have an open border,” he says. “Everyone can travel from Saint Martin to Phillipsburg.”

Political asylum
Venezuelans can apply for political asylum on the French side of the island. But a group of nine undocumented Venezuelans who fled to the Dutch side of the island say that they don’t want to make use of this opportunity. “We aren’t here because we want to be, or because we want to stay, but because our families need help to survive. There’s a shortage of everything in Venezuela”, according to one of the men. “The day Maduro is gone, I’ll go back to my family.”

‘This is my nephew, he died shortly after he was born today’ – José, one of the undocumented Venezuelans on Sint Maarten

A Venezuelan named José pulls out his cellphone and shows us a picture of a baby in a coffin. “This is my nephew, he died shortly after he was born today,” he says with a quaking voice. “My uncle messaged me today to tell me that the baby died due to lack of medical supplies.” A different man tells us that his mother in law suffers from high blood pressure and epilepsy. “Thankfully I was able to buy some medicine for her on Sint Maarten.”

The Venezuelans live in Philipsburg and in the Simpson Bay area in containers and slums. “Inhumane circumstances,” says a neighbor in Simpson Bay. “Do you see that blue, plastic tarp with rocks on it? I saw a group of Venezuelans securing that to use it as a roof. What’s under there, can’t be called a house; it’s a few wooden walls with a tarp overhead.”

The Venezuelans earn money, mostly dollars, by working illegally. They give the money to intermediaries on Sint Maarten who exchange them for Venezuelan bolivars. They send the bolivars to their families who stayed behind in Venezuela.