IACHR

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Inter-American System Rapporteur and United Nations Experts Express Deep Concern Over Disappearance of Venezuelan Migrants Following Caribbean Shipwreck

May 30, 2019

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María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Office
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Washington, D.C. — Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, rapporteur on the rights of migrants at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Mr. Ahmadou Tall, chairperson of the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; Mr. Felipe González Morales, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Ms. Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and the chair-rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Bernard Duhaime, expressed their deep concern over the disappearance of Venezuelan migrants when the ship Jhonnaly José capsized on April 24, 2019, after leaving Güiria, Venezuela, for Trinidad and Tobago. The IACHR urges the states of Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela to take the steps needed to coordinate search and rescue operations and implement forensic investigations and protocols to locate and identify the victims of this accident.

The Minister of National Security of Trinidad and Tobago reported that four people were rescued and 21 remain missing, among them women and children. The survivors have publicly stated that they held onto a plastic jerrycan for a day and half to keep themselves afloat, and some of them swam nearly 8 kilometers to reach the shores of the Venezuelan island of Patos.

The families of the missing migrants said that both the Trinidadian and Venezuelan authorities have issued contradictory information about the number of people on board the boat and the exact number of people who were rescued. They have also pointed out several shortcomings in the search and rescue efforts. In fact, there are conflicting reports as to how many people were found alive, as the media have reported that at least nine people were rescued and then transferred to a hospital in Güiria, Venezuela.

The IACHR rapporteur and United Nations experts note with concern that this shipwreck of Venezuelan migrants and people in need of international protection is not the first to occur in the Caribbean. On January 11, 2019, a vessel carrying around 30 Venezuelans on their way to the island of Curaçao also sank. Four of the passengers died and the rest were not found immediately.

According to figures from the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, which is coordinated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in April 2019, there were more than 3.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants living outside of Venezuela, more than 3 million of whom are in Latin American and Caribbean countries. Between 2014 and 2018, around 414,570 applications for asylum were filed by Venezuelans, approximately 255,448 of which in 2018 alone, and systems for recognizing refugee status are overstretched. This is the largest forced migration crisis in Latin America and is one of the largest in the world today. The migration of Venezuelans in recent years is related to the serious, large-scale human rights violations taking place in Venezuela and other conditions in the country, which include widespread violence, insecurity, and a lack of access to medical care, food, and basic services.

Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, IACHR rapporteur on the rights of migrants, stated that “this tragic shipwreck in the Caribbean Sea and the disappearance of the people on the boat are further evidence of just how desperate the situation has become for Venezuelans. They are forced to migrate from their homes for different reasons and face extreme dangers during their journeys to other countries in search of survival.” He went on to say that “Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago are on these migration paths and both states must thus take steps to prevent these events from happening again by providing safe, orderly, legal channels for migration. Venezuelans cannot keep being exposed to conditions that make them even more vulnerable while they continue to be victims of further human rights violations. There is an urgent need for effective mechanisms for cooperation between Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela to be adopted as soon as possible so that victims can be located immediately.”

The UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, stated that “according to international law, it is essential that Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago implement a thorough investigation to clearly establish what took place and identify who is responsible so as to ensure that tragedies like this do not happen again.” The chairperson of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, Ahmadou Tall, noted that “the states involved need to develop search mechanisms and ways of notifying the relatives of missing migrants, including a single procedure to facilitate the filing of complaints, and, if necessary, the repatriation of victims’ remains.”

The chair-rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, Bernard Duhaime, stressed that established methods for searching for missing people must be used, as the group indicated in its report on forced disappearances during migration. “States have an obligation to do everything in their power to find victims immediately and to cooperate with each other to achieve this. When victims are presumed dead, the state must search for their remains, identify them, and return them to their families with dignity,” Mr. Duhaime said.

Given the circumstances of the Venezuelan migrants who are fleeing the country by sea as a result of various forms of violence or in search of better living conditions, the IACHR and UN experts urge the states in question to establish mechanisms to strengthen and coordinate search and rescue operations, forensic investigations and protocols, the dignified handling of the remains of the deceased, and the identification and location of their families through secure exchanges of antemortem and postmortem information and DNA test results. Likewise, the IACHR rapporteur and UN experts note that urgent measures are required to ensure that the close friends and families of those who are missing are involved in these processes. Actions also need to be implemented to provide relatives with information on how searches are progressing and the outcomes of these, and to give them any other assistance they may require.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families monitors States parties’ adherence to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The Committee is made up of 14 members who are independent human rights experts drawn from around the world, who serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of States parties.

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances is comprised of five independent experts from all regions of the world. The Working Group was established by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1980 to assist families in determining the fate and whereabouts of disappeared relatives. It endeavours to establish a channel of communication between the families and the Governments concerned, to ensure that individual cases are investigated, with the objective of clarifying the whereabouts of persons who, having disappeared, are placed outside the protection of the law. It continues to address cases of disappearances until they are resolved. The Working Group also provides assistance in the implementation by States of the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

FELIPE GONZÁLEZ MORALES is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.  The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants was created in 1999 by the Commission on Human Rights, pursuant to resolution 1999/44. Since then, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur has been extended by Commission on Human Rights resolutions 2002/62 and 2005/47 and Human Rights Council resolutions 8/1017/12,  26/19, and 34/21 each for a period of three years. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur covers all countries, irrespective of whether a State has ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, of 18 December 1990.

AGNES CALLAMARD is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. The Commission on Human Rights, in its resolution 1992/72, renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and widened the title of the mandate to include "extrajudicial" as well as "summary or arbitrary" executions. This change indicates that the members of the Commission have adopted a broader approach to the mandate on executions to include all violations of the right to life as guaranteed by a large number of international human rights instruments. In its latest resolution 35/15 on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions of 22 June 2017, the Human Rights Council renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for another three years. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur covers all countries, irrespective of whether a State has ratified relevant international Conventions.

No. 131/19