In a dingy, dimly lit brothel, Maria explains how she left her young child behind in crisis-hobbled Venezuela to work as a prostitute in Trinidad and Tobago, hoping to earn enough money to return home and start anew.
The English-speaking island lies only 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) away, making it an attractive destination for tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled there in recent years in search of a better life.
Most are undocumented and work for peanuts, exploited by traffickers, pimps and failed by the system, observers say.
Hundreds are women who end up selling their bodies, some willingly, some not, most living in grim conditions without freedom of movement or even the right to use their cellphones at will.
Maria, who did not want to give her real name, said she has to work back the $500 she owes the traffickers who arranged her recent passage to the Trinidadian capital, Port of Spain.
"I hope to do so in a month or two. Then, work one or two more months and return to Venezuela with the money to open a business," the 25-year-old told AFP over the loud music pounding through her workplace and temporary home.
Prostitutes told AFP they earn about $12 to $24 of the $30-$60 charged by a brothel for 30 minutes spent with a client.
A john wishing to take a woman home, or to a hotel, has to fork out a minimum of $150 -- about equal to the average monthly salary in Venezuela.
Also from her earnings, Maria said she had to pay $50 a month for the "rent" of her small brothel room. With what she can stash away, she has big dreams of opening a small shop back home.
"It's fine," she says, resigned to her fate.
Maria knew what she was getting in to when she left Venezuela.
Many others do not.
- 'Sexual merchandise' -
According to a 2021 report on sexual slavery by the NGO Connectas, over 21,000 Venezuelan women and girls fell victim to human trafficking in Trinidad and Tobago in the previous six years.
Most were between 18 and 25, some younger, lured by promises of gainful employment.
"They lose their freedom as soon as they set foot on any Trinidadian beach, and their 'original sin' is an alleged debt that these women can only pay by becoming sexual merchandise," said the Connectas report.
About seven million of Venezuela's 30 million inhabitants have left home in the face of an economic crisis that has slashed GDP by 80 percent in 10 years.
Officially, there are 60,000 Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago, which has 1.4 million inhabitants, although NGOs estimate the figure could be much higher -- as much as 10 percent of the population.
Only about 9,000 have legal status.
"People call us. We fetch them on the Venezuelan coast... We pay the Trinidadian coast guard $1,500," a boat owner who transports migrants told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Since 2018, more than 100 people have died in the crossing.
Once in Trinidad, rights groups say migrants are abandoned largely to their own devices.
Figures from the Trinidadian Financial Intelligence Unit showed that in the four years to 2020, human trafficking added $2.2 million to the country's economy, according to the Connectas report.
- 'They take advantage' -
Exploitation stretches beyond sex work to the construction, cleaning and services industries.
"If (the work) is hard and underpaid, it's for us. The Trinidadians do not accept to work for the salaries we do," said a Venezuelan ex-soldier who works at a car wash for the average wage of about $3 an hour.
"Sometimes the boss doesn't pay you the hours you worked because he knows you can't report it, they take advantage," added a construction worker.
Opposition MP David Lee, while pointing out the "security risk" posed by unvetted, undocumented migrants, said the government nevertheless had a responsibility to look after them.
It is "a big human rights issue," he told AFP.
"They (migrants) are really at the mercy of the population of Trinidad and Tobago."