Venezuelan family in limbo as hope rests on asylum extension

MARIGOT–For the Vergara family, asylum seekers from Valencia, Venezuela, life in St. Martin consists of a day-to-day existence fraught with uncertainty, instability, an insecure status, no guarantee of reliable accommodation and only occasional income to provide food for three children and their parents. Their anxiety is palpable with the constant threat of deportation looming over their heads.

In one sense the family is relieved to have escaped the economic crisis in Venezuela, but their situation in St. Martin is complicated too, their future hinging on clemency from the national refugee office, Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides (OFPRA), a specialised institution dealing with asylum where their application for another extension is filed. It’s an unending wait for an answer.

Mervis Vergara’s story goes back to 2014 when he first came to St. Martin as a tourist staying here with cousins. He stayed four months, managing to earn some money from construction work to send back for his family. He returned on June 30, 2016, and applied for asylum as the economic crisis in Venezuela continued to get worse and worse. He had to leave his family behind in Venezuela for 11 months before he could find enough money to bring them to St. Martin.

“I was an employee of Ford Motors in Venezuela for seven years until I was laid off in 2010. The pay was so little,” he explained. “I didn’t have enough money to buy food for my family. There are so many problems in Venezuela now; to buy food, medications, trouble on the streets, trouble with the government.

“I have had some jobs in construction here and as an air conditioner or fridge technician. I studied for that after I left Ford Motors. My wife gets some cleaning jobs now and again. Since I arrived in 2016 I never went back to Venezuela. But before I left, two men stole my car and threatened to kill me. I had a small taxi job. They put a gun to my head, threatening my family if I went to the police. I mentioned all of this in my application for asylum at the Préfecture. That was what helped to bring my family here.”

Permission was subsequently granted to stay on the French side for one month. After that he was given an extension of nine months, and then a further six months. But the time limit expired November 2017, a worrying situation for the family with no papers.
“The asylum process has been going on for a year and a half, but they don’t tell me anything, no final decision,” he complained. “Legally I am not allowed to work until I get a decision from OFPRA. I received a letter from the Préfecture in Guadeloupe to obtain a lawyer to help with my situation but then the hurricane came and I could not go to Guadeloupe. After that I waited for them to give me another date but I heard nothing more from them.”

Adding to the family’s problems is their accommodation. The landlord of their apartment in Sandy Ground wants to put them out as they have no valid papers. They have found another house but the new landlord does not want to take them either as there is a 1,000 euro fine for taking a tenant without asylum papers in order.

“I offered to pay three month’s rent money to stay where we are but he did not accept it. He does not want to renew the lease. He wants us out. I explain that I have three children and nowhere to go.” The family’s situation is further complicated as the two boys are in school on the French side.

“That happened after the hurricane when my wife asked an education official if we could get a school for the children. The answer was ‘yes,’ and we filled up the forms at the Collectivité, translating the birth certificates from Venezuela and rental contracts where we were living.”

Vergara does not know who the education official was who helped them. Initially the Collectivité did not give an answer about the older boy who had already been missing school for six months, although it was no problem for the younger boy. Evidently, he suggests, his wife had appealed to a senior education official in Guadeloupe, possibly the Recteur himself, Camille Galap.

But now he cannot get health insurance for the children on the French side because he does not have a rental contract. That contract is also needed to put the youngest child in school.

Vergara treads a fine line between trying to avoid being caught by Immigration for working illegally and the absolute necessity to feed his family. It’s a double-edged sword. He’s in a network of Venezuelans who warn each other by WhatsApp of possible Immigration raids.
He was caught by immigration on the Dutch side in September 2017 for working on a one-day job and taken into custody for three days before he was sent back to the French side.
Meanwhile, the waiting game continues. Vergara claims he is not getting any help from the French side despite France’s reputation for generosity on social issues.

According to OFPRA’s website asylum seekers do receive an allowance if there is proof that monthly income is less than Revenu Solidarité Active (RSA). The amount is calculated according to the make-up of the family. The allowance stops being paid after the month which follows that of the notification of the definitive decision relating to the asylum application.

If OFPRA rejects the asylum application, the Préfecture notifies the applicant of the refusal decision accompanied by a notice ordering the applicant to leave French territory “obligation de quitter le territoire française” (OQTF).

This decision will specify the deadline that you have, if necessary, to leave France voluntarily (in principle one month). Within this deadline, one can, under certain cases, request to benefit from a repatriation grant for return to the country of origin
On the other hand, if asylum is accepted the applicant can remain in the territory as a refugee and apply for a 10-year residence permit.

According to reliable police sources in St. Martin, asylum seekers receive an allowance of 300 euros per month and receive medical and lodging assistance, but only for a six- to nine-month period. In 2017 there were 300 asylum requests on the French side.

Source: The Daily Herald