Refugees Risk Perilous Path to Escape Socialist Venezuela Into Neighboring Guyana

By Joanna Dhanraj
Joanna Dhanraj
Joanna Dhanraj
December 16, 2021 Updated: December 28, 2021

Tens of thousands of Venezuelan immigrants are flooding into South American neighbor country Guyana in a bid to escape the destitution and instability of socialism.

Escape routes away from coast guards and Venezuela’s armed gangs—called syndicates—take the refugees along perilous routes, risking starvation and sickness in search of a new and unprepared-for life.

With security tightening on the borders of both Guyana and Venezuela, migrants resort to paying exorbitant fares to cross the border.

While many leave wanting better lives for themselves and their families, challenges abound upon arrival. The language barrier is on top of the list, since Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America.

The Guyanese government is doing everything in its power to assist the Venezuelan migrants, Guyana’s minister of foreign affairs Hugh Todd told The Epoch Times.

He noted that a number of humanitarian organizations have joined with the Guyana government to assist the refugees, some of whom are returning Guyanese and others who are Venezuelans and other nationalities.

“For us, as a government, we’re here to ensure they have good health care, provide education for them, in some cases jobs and training, and help them to integrate within the society and abide by all national norms and laws,” Todd said.

“We have an obligation, and that is what we are doing at a governmental level.”

Epoch Times Photo
Refugees encircle bags of food hampers and hygiene supplies brought by the Guyanese government’s team to be distributed on Nov. 20, 2021. (Richard Bhainie for The Epoch Times)

For their protection, the identities of the migrants interviewed by The Epoch Times remain undisclosed and the names used aren’t their real ones. This is because many of the syndicates, as well as their families, have moved to Guyana.

Re-migrant Lazaro Alphonso, his wife Leta Alphonso, and their 8-year-old grandson José arrived in Guyana in September. The Alphonsos were born in Guyana and had spent decades living in Venezuela; José, however, was born in Venezuela.

For the couple, returning to the country of their birth was no easier than that of migrants making the journey for the first time.

Lazaro Alphonso said that sometime before he left Venezuela, he had been working in the gold mines, where he owned and operated a gold dredge.

With the syndicates gaining control and running owners and laborers out of the mines, he and his workers, in fear for their lives, escaped, leaving their machines and tools behind.

Much of the gold mining in southern Venezuela is illegal. The syndicates exercise control over the illegal mines through violence and intimidation, while operating with the acquiescence and likely involvement of Venezuela’s socialist regime, according to Human Rights Watch.

The syndicates eventually turned up at Alphonso’s home and demanded that he leave. He said disobeying them could lead to painful consequences, including death.

Yet when they instructed him to leave, he said he pleaded with them to give him some more time to find somewhere for him and his family to stay. They granted his request.

“I was very afraid for my life and my family’s. The syndicates would kill you for the littlest things. They killed many innocent people. They would capture someone and tell his family to not worry about him, that he would be well taken care of,” he said.

“But, instead, they would carry him to a remote area and kill him.”

He spent the next four days trying to sell whatever valuables he had in his home to pay for the trip. He managed to purchase a trip to Guyana—with his wife and grandson—for $400 each.

Yet he was $200 short of the overall fare, which his children paid when he arrived in Guyana some days later.

Epoch Times Photo
Open-air huts constructed along rivers give limited protection against the rain and mosquitoes carrying diseases such as malaria. (Richard Bhainie for The Epoch Times)

Alphonso said he tried to salvage as many of his possessions as he could to take along, but the majority were ruined during their journey.

Not only had the rebel soldiers taken their home, but a fee was required from the captain of the boat to the syndicates, which was covered through the fares paid by the passengers.

Recounting the days leading up to the trip, Alphonso recalled being told to be ready to leave immediately, since the boat could turn up at any time during the day or night.

Though many refugees had already paid for the journey, the syndicates had the last word on who would get to travel.

The boat arrived at night. The Alphonsos and a few others waded in the mud in the dark as they pushed the boat out into deeper water. Slowly, they crossed the lagoon until they stopped at another area where scores of people were waiting to board.

More than 60 passengers, and all of their possessions, were crammed into a 50-foot boat for the three-day journey.

“The boat was packed like sardines in a tin, you couldn’t stretch your feet; if you stretched them, you’d end up resting them on another passenger.

“The sea was very rough, and the waves were so huge that I was worried that we’d never make it out of the sea. I began to think that I would never see my children again,” Alphonso said.

A few of the passengers who were able to move an arm were tasked with bailing water out of the boat with buckets.

The stormy Atlantic Ocean was rough for most of the journey, with the salty water pasting their clothing to their shivering bodies.

Epoch Times Photo
Guyana’s Minister of Health Frank Anthony looking through a box of medicine on Nov. 20, 2021. (Richard Bhainie for The Epoch Times)

Unable to move as they’d like, the passengers couldn’t grab the snacks they had packed away; even if they could, they were all far too seasick to eat.

Alphonso recalled that with no washrooms, the passengers—women, children, and men—took turns sitting on a bucket in the bow of the boat. A tarp thrown over them provided little privacy. The waste would be emptied into the sea before the passenger squeezed their way back to their seat.

For Alphonso and his family, their seats were on the floor of the boat.

“We were sitting in water for most of the trip,” he said.

Several days later, Alphonso and his family arrived in Guyana through the Essequibo River at a village called Parika.

“When we arrived there, they put us off at Parika, at a camp surrounded by trees and overgrown bush. They [the boat captain and bowman] told us to stay in the bush until it was clear to leave, as police patrolled the area. Some of them had left and gone ahead, then we saw them running back, shouting that the police were coming.

“Then I told my wife, we’re Guyanese—and I still had my identification card—so we could go. Because I had my identification card, the police just looked at it and allowed us to go on our way.”

Alphonso and his family arrived dehydrated and starving and spent a week recuperating at the homes of their children, who had made the journey a year earlier. They took a quicker route that took a day and a half and cost them much less.

Border security wasn’t as strict then, he said.

His children, Alphonso said, took the route along the Amacuro River that separates the countries and avoided having to journey on the ocean.

The senior Alphonsos’ journey ended in White Water, an indigenous community in the Barima-Waini region. They later settled in Demerara and Mahaica.

Knowing English, they were able to find work in the countryside, rearing farm animals and working in a shop. However, Guyanese employers have a reputation for overworking migrants and paying them less than local workers.

Within a couple of months of working as a porter at a shop, cleaning poultry, and as a night watchman for a steel company, Alphonso managed to save $250.

He intends to use the savings to open a small grocery shop of his own.

Epoch Times Photo
Basic living conditions of refugees in Guyana on Nov. 20, 2021. Their basic necessities are limited to clothing, buckets, pots, and the hammocks they sleep in. (Richard Bhainie/The Epoch Times)

A year ago, re-migrant Frances Rivera, her husband, Jason Rivera, and their four children left Venezuela. Unlike Alphonso’s experience, her journey wasn’t as harsh, and she left of her own free will.

With Venezuela’s socialist regime facing hyperinflation, resulting in the fluctuation of prices for goods, the Riveras knew their money wouldn’t be good for much longer. They needed to leave before it was too late.

Frances Rivera said syndicates were quickly taking control of the villages there and, before she left, they already had some control of her village. She recalled that people weren’t able to go to another part of Venezuela without having to seek permission from the syndicates.

Rivera and her family were among the lucky ones to have escaped the syndicates, who didn’t realize they were leaving for good. They were able to sell their home before the trip and managed to pack most of their smaller possessions.

They were the only passengers on the boat—owing to them being able to hire a vessel for the journey. Their trip took two days, including stopping in another part of Venezuela to rest for a night.

Rivera said she had pictured better things ahead, but upon arriving in Guyana, she knew that was going to be far from the truth.

She had lived in Guyana before, in the 1980s, but had migrated to Venezuela with her parents in search of a better life. There, they had found the life they were seeking, and she never thought the day would come when she would be returning to the country of her birth.

Rivera lamented how difficult it was for her husband to find a job. When they first arrived, it took some time before he got one in construction. He was paid $13 to $15 per day.

Jason Rivera, she said, has since found a job as a shopkeeper in another village and travels home twice a week to spend time with their family. While his wages remain at $15 a day, she said he doesn’t work all day in the sun, as he did in construction.

But the money isn’t enough to support the family of six, with the cost of living in Guyana climbing.

“Since returning to Guyana, this past year has been really difficult. If you don’t have hope, you would give up on everything. I’ve faced different challenges every day so far.

“You think, when you leave Venezuela, you’re coming to something better, but it’s really hard here. When employers look at you and realize you’re a migrant, they will work you so hard and give you little wages,” Rivera said.

One of Rivera’s daughters, Stacy, 21, was a second-year medical student at a university in Venezuela, where she studied for free. To study medicine in Guyana, the program at the University of Guyana costs $8,853 for foreigners.

“Because of how expensive it is to study medicine here, we don’t really know how she’ll be able to go to university. We are looking at other alternatives since she still wants to work in the health sector.

“Here at Mabaruma, the government provides courses for persons interested in doing health work, so maybe she’ll decide to do that instead,” Frances Rivera said.

Having to care for her eldest child, Steven, who is disabled, she is unable to seek work outside the home.

Frances Rivera said her 19-year-old son, Andre, tries getting odd jobs in the Mabaruma sub-district where they now live. Yet he still has to make time for his schooling. Though he has already completed final exams in Venezuela, the qualifications aren’t valid in Guyana.

Three Rivera children have since returned to high school to take the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations, which will allow them to pursue a tertiary education or find a job.

Stacy and Andre, along with their youngest sibling, 18-year-old Alicia, are back to being 11th graders in preparations to take the CSEC exams next year.

Since arriving in Guyana, Frances Rivera has been back and forth trying to get a Guyanese identification card for herself, as well as have her children become naturalized citizens of the country. Not much has come of that as yet.

“I have to get my identification card before I can go to the [General Register Office] and apply for my kids. When I went to the [Guyana Elections Commission] to apply for my identification card, they said they are not doing registration yet and cannot say when they’ll start.”

She also has to apply for her husband to become a naturalized Guyanese citizen, since he’s Trinidadian by birth.

Frances Rivera has since filled out a form designed for immigrants that will provide training and, upon completion, jobs in the areas they were trained in. The program is yet to be rolled out.

Epoch Times Photo
Refugees at Anabisi, Port Kaituma, gathered together for the visit by Guyanese ministers on Nov. 20, 2021. (Richard Bhainie for The Epoch Times)

UNICEF, among other nongovernmental organizations, she said, visited the communities in the region distributing mosquito nets, food hampers, hammocks, and utensils to the migrants there.

Elena De Santos spoke to The Epoch Times as a translator on behalf of her niece, Maria Figuero, and her niece’s husband, Martín Mendez, who are Venezuelans by birth.

Maria Figuero, who was diagnosed with cancer some time ago, was told she was in the third stage of the disease. Unable to receive the medical attention she needed in Venezuela, she traveled to Guyana in August to seek treatment. Figuero has since been visiting her doctors regularly.

De Santos said that owing to Venezuela’s economic instability, Mendez decided to travel to Guyana to earn more money to take care of his wife. He paid $2,500 to cover his fare and traveled with five other passengers: two men and three women.

The captain of the boat dropped them at an uninhabited island in Venezuelan waters, where he told the passengers he needed to refuel and would return for them. However, the passengers didn’t want to be left on the island, and when they tried to stay in the boat, they were beaten by the captain and his two crew, who then ordered them off the vessel.

The men then made off with whatever few belongings the passengers left in the boat, other valuables, and cash.

With nothing to eat and only the clothes on their backs, they had to fend for themselves by scavenging for food on the island. They ate whatever fruits and fish they could find. It was about 20 days later when they were rescued by a crab fisherman.

“The fisherman who rescued them brought them to immigration at Morwana. The officers there, when they saw their conditions, gave them food and brought them to the Mabaruma police station. Afterward, they took them to the Mabaruma public hospital,” De Santos recalled.

She said that by the time they were discovered, the passengers were too weak to walk and needed to be carried. Mendez and the other passengers were so dehydrated and sunburned that their skin peeled. Sores covered their feet and their hands bore countless mosquito bites.

De Santos said she and her brother were among relatives who picked up Mendez after they received news of his arrival. They took clothing for Mendez, and food for him and the other passengers. Sadly, De Santos said the other passengers were left behind at Kumaka as they didn’t have any relatives or any place to go.

The sight of the migrants at Kumaka, De Santos said, is one she thought she’d never witness. She said they were clustered together at a time when the pandemic raged and where their kids scavenged for scraps from garbage bins.

One resident said that while she recognized the government was trying, it wasn’t enough for the thousands of migrants arriving and settling.

A recent release by UNHCR reported that Guyana currently hosts an estimated 24,500 refugees and migrants from Venezuela, including some 2,500 indigenous Warao.

Venezuelans are issued a government stay permit upon arrival, which is valid for three months and requires periodic renewal.

The agency said they received reports that one Warao child, from a community in the Anabisi region, died and several others were hospitalized—reportedly due to malnutrition and diseases related to poor sanitation conditions.

The Guyanese government has denied the reports, stating that no migrant has died, nor are they suffering from starvation.

Many of the Waraos have settled along the rivers.

“Most Warao people have only one meal a day or less. Without formal job opportunities, many are begging, working odd jobs, often in exchange for food, selling handicrafts, or depending on humanitarian assistance,” UNHCR said in a statement.

Most families don’t have access to drinking water, relying instead on rivers for drinking, bathing, and defecation.

On Nov. 20, a team of government ministers and doctors visited the Warao refugees settled in Anabisi to provide medical care and assess their needs.

Dr. Neil Samwaroo, a pediatrician assigned to the Georgetown Public Hospital Corp., said the medical team attended to 20 of the 50 children living at the settlement. These children were said to be among the sickest.

He said that while there, the children were treated for mild diarrheal diseases, impetigo (a bacterial infection on the skin), and conjunctivitis.

Samaroo added that while there were no cases that warranted emergency attention, four patients who needed further medical help were taken to the Port Kaituma Hospital.

Minister of Human Services and Social Security Dr. Vindhya Persaud—who was part of the team that visited Anabisi and Port Kaituma—says wider relief will be continually provided to the community.