Venezuelan refugees happy to be safe in Manitoba town, but worried for family back home

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A family from Venezuela now living in a Manitoba town is happy to have received refugee status in Canada, but is worried for other relatives still back home.

And a Winnipeg immigration lawyer says Manitoba may see more refugees from the South American country, which is now plagued by violence and political unrest.

CBC is not revealing the names of the refugee family, because they fear retribution from the Venezuelan government against relatives still living in Venezuela.

"It's a complicated issue, with political problems, kidnappings," said the man CBC is calling Joe — a Spanish-speaking father of two, who drove to Manitoba with his wife and two-year-old daughter from New Orleans in a rented car this past June.

He and his family now live in the southern Manitoba town of Altona. Joe said he and his two daughters, ages 10 and two, first left Venezuela in August 2016.

"We went to Mexico City just to take some time away," Joe said.

After spending five months in Mexico, Joe and his wife decided they would not go back to Venezuela because it was no longer safe to live there due to the economic crisis and deadly protests on the streets.

"Of course I was scared," he said. "I was scared for my life and my daughter's life, and my family."

He said that's when the couple decided to send their 10-year-old daughter away to stay with relatives in Altona until he could figure out a plan to seek refugee status in Canada.

Joe said relatives from Altona took a flight to Mexico and picked up the 10-year-old earlier this summer.

He said the situation in Venezuela is getting worse and it's heartbreaking to learn that so many people have died while protesting against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

"These are groups that openly work for the regime. If you don't comply with their demands, you will most likely be targeted and killed, or you will be blamed and pay the price for not complying," Joe said in an interview, conducted in Spanish, with CBC on Tuesday.

After his daughter left Mexico for Altona, Joe said he, his wife and their two-year-old daughter took a flight to New Orleans, where they stayed with a relative for a while before making the trek to Manitoba.

He said they did not seek asylum in the U.S. because he wanted to be with his daughter and family in Altona.

Granted refugee status

So on June 1, he rented a car and drove 48 hours from New Orleans to the Emerson border.

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement the family was eligible to go directly to the border to make a refugee claim because they have a family member in Canada.

"They treated us very very well," he said of the border agents in Manitoba.

"Once we parked the vehicle we were invited inside the office to start the paperwork for the refugee claim, and they were very humane and understanding," Joe said.

After 12 hours at the Emerson border, Joe said a friend picked him and his family up and took them to Altona, where they were reunited with his older daughter.

The family was eventually granted refugee status at a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada on Aug. 11.

"I"m happy but my heart is somewhere else," Joe said, adding he loves his home country but isn't sure he will ever go back.

He's now worried about his parents, who are struggling in Venezuela, adding there are food and medicine shortages in addition to the volatile political situation.

Spike in asylum claims from Venezuela

According to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada the number of asylum seekers from Venezuela has spiked in the last few years, from 31 claims in 2013 to 161 in 2017 so far.

Winnipeg immigration lawyer Alastair Clarke said Joe's family is one of three from Venezuela he is representing right now.

"With the current situation in Venezuela, I'm not surprised that we're seeing more refugee claimants coming from Venezuela," Clarke said.

"The political crisis that is going on right now, it has caused a lot of people to fear for their lives. People who are targeted as being sympathetic to the opposition [in Venezuela] are being essentially hunted down," Clarke said.

Clarke said the families from Venezuela are arriving in Canada by any means possible, from both the U.S. and from Venezuela directly with a visitor's visa.

He said he's not concerned about another wave of refugee claimants coming from South American countries like Venezuela.

"I believe the Canadian public still has an appetite to support many more refugees. On a per capita basis, Canada is still not among the top countries for receiving refugees," Clarke said.

Meanwhile, Joe said he is grateful to be in Canada and his focus now is looking for work. But he feels the journey will be an emotional challenge.

"My parents are older now. It's complicated," Joe said as he choked back tears.

"This is the reality now. One day my parents could die and I can't even go back to bury them."

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