Guest post by Natalie Dietrich Jones. Natalie is Research Fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) at the University of the West Indies (Mona), where she coordinates the course ‘Small States’ Development: Challenges and Opportunities’. Her research interests include geographies of the border, managed migration, and intra-regional migration in the Caribbean. Natalie is Chair of the Migration and Development Cluster, an inter-disciplinary group of researchers exploring contemporary issues concerning migration in the Caribbean and its diaspora. She is also a Research Associate with the Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island. Her current research projects include a multi-sited study examining the response of governments in Aruba, Curaçao, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago to the Venezuelan migration crisis.

‘Bon bini’- ‘Welcome’– in Papiamentu, the local creole language in Curaçao, an autonomous country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is frequently found on signs in streets, shops and hotels in this small island’s tourism-based economy. The greeting, which reflects the warm and open reception of Dutch Caribbean people, is also memorialised on a variety of souvenirs. However, it also holds symbolic reference for this borderized space, which like many island destinations, is open to some categories of migrants but closed to others (see work by Russell King). The welcoming response to tourists can be starkly contrasted with the region’s approach to (undocumented) Venezuelan arrivals. In this brief post, I focus on Curaçao, which due to its practices of detention and deportation of Venezuelans has received considerable international attention from the media and international NGOs, as described below.

Dutch Caribbean
The Statue ‘Free at last’ in the ‘Parke Lucha pa Libertat (Fight for Freedom Park), which pays homage to formerly enslaved Africans. The park is located along the coast of Willemstad, Curaçao. With clear skies one can view the coast of Venezuela from this location (Photo: Natalie Dietrich Jones)

Curaçao, 40 kilometres away from Venezuela, is amongst a group of small island-developing states (SIDS) in the Southern Caribbean, which includes the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Sint Maarten and the Anglophone states of Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, currently being impacted by the Venezuelan migration crisis. These destinations have grown more popular for Venezuelans due to proximity, low-cost travel, as well as cultural and familial ties. The United Nations indicates the crisis in this region to be ‘on the scale of Syria’. The exodus of Venezuelans, which has accelerated since 2014, is driven by a number of factors, which has produced what scholars refer to as a ‘multi-dimensional’ crisis (see special issue publication by the Regional Coordinator for Social and Economic Research /CRIES).

The word ‘crisis’ is not unproblematic (see work by Alison Mountz and Nancy Hiemstra). However, I employ it here for temporal and descriptive purposes to distinguish between the period preceding and since the acceleration of emigration from Venezuela. To date, over 4 million have been reported to have left the South American state. The lack of available data prevents an accurate reflection of the impact on Southern Caribbean; however, the exponential increase in asylum claims may serve as a proxy for the extent of the crisis there. Between 2014 and 2018, there were over 14,000 asylum seekers in the Southern Caribbean, the majority of them in Trinidad and Tobago.

In response to the migration crisis, the government engaged in what Amnesty International refers to as an ‘active removal strategy’. This entailed the extensive use of detention and deportation for those undocumented, as well as detention of those suspected of being undocumented (see also Refugees International report by Leghtas and Thea). This policy was also complemented by interdictions at sea due to an increase in clandestine arrivals by boat. INGOs’ reports, as well as media, describe particularly harrowing experiences of those detained, some of whom included persons with potentially legitimate claims to asylum. The government has planned return flights for undocumented migrants even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The international community has criticised this approach, inviting scrutiny into the (deficient) policy framework for the protection of vulnerable migrants in Curaçao. While peculiar to this moment in Curaçao’s history, a securitized response to migration that relies on detention of those with suspect status is not novel for jurisdictions with porous maritime borders (see for example work by Cetta Mainwaring on another small island, Malta and Jorgen Carling on the Spanish-African border).

It is also an approach that has relied on discursive practices, as is common elsewhere (see work by Kate Coddington and others). The discursive dimensions of the border are reflected in state rhetoric which reinforced migrants’ positionality as threats to citizens’ security. In 2016, for example, the Governor of Curaçao made the following remarks during a parliamentary address: “All the community can feel the effects of the problems in our neighbour country. Our monitoring team in that matter has confirmed that almost all the arriving persons are exclusively from the areas of delinquency, illegal job and prostitution” (sic). Undocumented migrants were therefore presented as a threat to the viability of the Curaçaoan state. Discourse on immigration also included the states’ reference to its limited capacity to provide asylum to Venezuelans, and to provide for migrants’ daily needs. The Curaçaoan government thus engaged in an unwelcoming strategy by design with the objective of containing the ‘threat’.

Those who are deported are prohibited from re-entry for a three-year period, in a move intended to discourage further migration; this approach thus aligns with Curaçao’s securitized approach to border management. The island has historically been known for piracy and drug trafficking and relies on deterrence in its efforts to combat these transnational crimes (see work by Sanneke Kloppenburg in respect of drug trafficking and aeromobilities).

Dutch Caribbean
Notice by an airline operating in Hato International Airport, Curaçao. It announces the February 2019 closure of the border by the Venezuelan government and its resulting impact on air traffic between the two countries (Photo: Natalie Dietrich Jones)

Although a significant number of Venezuelans have been deported the strategy has not deterred (clandestine) migration to Curaçao. The strict border regime and dangerous sea journeys have had disastrous consequences for migrants and their families. For example, in January 2018, there were reports of several Venezuelans drowning, when a boat carrying over twenty persons capsizedVenezuela’s closure of its air and maritime borders in February 2019 with Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao has also encouraged clandestine entry by boat. In June 2019, there were reports of additional persons going missing.

Finally, as indicated above, Curaçao is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. A relationship of dependence is nonetheless maintained between Curaçao and its metropole (the Netherlands), based on the architecture and functions of the Kingdom Government. Seated in the Hague, the Kingdom Government holds responsibility for foreign relations, defence and Dutch Nationality (see work by Jaap Woldendorp). Despite tensions between Curaçao and the Kingdom Government over responsibility for management of the crisis (see my recent paper in the special issue of Migration and Development and an opinion by members of the International Bar Association), the latter has provided assistance to buttress and expand immigration detention facilities in Curaçao (see Global Detention Project and local news reports). Unfortunately, this legitimizes the policy approach which has been taken by Curaçaoan authorities. There is, however, still hope. A judgement is pending in relation to a claim brought by a group of interdicted and detained Venezuelans, who face deportation, against the Netherlands in European Court of Human Rights. If the Court rules favourably for the Venezuelans, the resulting jurisprudence could potentially inform subsequent reception approaches in Curaçao, and other autonomous countries in the Kingdom.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Dietrich Jones, N. (2021). A Welcome Reception? Interdiction, Detention and Deportation in the Dutch Caribbean. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/01/welcome-reception [date]