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The deep economic crisis affecting Venezuela has caused more than 3 million Venezuelans to leave their country. Most have crossed into relatively large neighboring countries like Brazil and Colombia, but some are landing on tiny Caribbean islands where they're not exactly welcome. From the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, reporter John Otis has more.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The fishing village of Cedros in southern Trinidad lies just seven miles across the sea from Venezuela. That puts it within easy reach of desperate migrants, like Noris Benavente who has just arrived from Venezuela on a small passenger boat. She's met by her son, who moved here two years ago, and his Trinidadian wife. Venezuelans can stay here legally for a few months, but Benavente has other ideas.
NORIS BENAVENTE: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Referring to food shortages and hyperinflation back home, she says the situation in Venezuela is really bad. Benavente admits that she might just stay put in Trinidad. Many Venezuelans enter as tourists, then overstay their permits. Those who lack passports pay boat captains to smuggle them ashore. All told, some 60,000 Venezuelans have recently settled in Trinidad, a stable oil and gas-producing nation. However, Trinidad and Tobago is only slightly larger than Rhode Island and home to just 1.3 million people.
Amid the flood of Venezuelans, Trinidad's government is adopting a harder line. For example, it has ignored petitions from thousands of Venezuelans seeking asylum. In April, authorities forcibly deported 82 Venezuelans. The U.N. called the expulsions a breach of international refugee law. But at a news conference earlier this year, Prime Minister Keith Rowley defended his policy.
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PRIME MINISTER KEITH ROWLEY: We are not China. We are not Russia. We are not America. We are a little island, limited space, and therefore we cannot and will not allow the U.N. spokespersons to convert us into a refugee camp.
OTIS: Still, Venezuelans keep coming.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: They include 11 members of the Tovar family who are packed into this two-bedroom house. Some work washing dishes or unloading cargo trucks for about $500 a month as opposed to $5 back in Venezuela where the currency has collapsed. Still, Samuel Tovar, a 28-year-old chef from Caracas, feels like an outcast, unable to speak much English and fearful of police roundups.
SAMUEL TOVAR: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: He chokes up telling me how he was jailed last year for overstaying his tourist permit. He and other Venezuelans, including children, face the constant threat of deportation.
OTIS: Back on the beach at Cedros, I meet Annette, a Trinidadian housewife with tears in her eyes. It turns out she's been taking care of two Venezuelan girls, ages 11 and 12, who were somehow left behind when their mother was deported nine months ago.
ANNETTE: We saw the hardship and what these girls were going through. And to be left on your own, your parents taken away from you, we just wanted to help them.
OTIS: With the consent of the mother, Annette is attempting to adopt the girls. So far, she's run into bureaucratic roadblocks but is going to keep trying. She doesn't want to give her last name to avoid hassles from government officials. Meanwhile, it's time to say goodbye.
ANNETTE: Today, the kids have to return because I have no extension for them. Their time is up to stay in Trinidad.
OTIS: Shortly after we spoke, the girls were put aboard a boat for Venezuela. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cedros, Trinidad and Tobago.
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