Guest post by Georgina Chami and Florence Seemungal. Georgina is a Lecturer at the Institute of International Relations (IIR), University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad. Her research interests include Diplomacy, Peace and Security, Peacebuilding and International Organizations. Florence is a Trinidadian multi-disciplinary researcher (Sociology; Cognitive Psychology; Gender and Development Studies; International Human Rights Law and Practice). She was a former Research Officer at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford and is currently a Research Associate at the Centre.
Just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a country of 1.4 million people, presently has an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans. Although Venezuelan migrants in T&T are not new, the rise in numbers within a short time span have attracted both local and international attention. In this brief post, we examine the situation of Venezuelan migrants in Trinidad and Tobago alongside the country’s response to their arrival, before offering some recommendations for a new approach.
Plight of Venezuelan Migrants in T&T
T&T is the southernmost of the Caribbean islands. This small twin-island has become a popular refuge for Venezuelans given its proximity, easy access and population size. Most of the new arrivals from Venezuela are unable to work legally or access public education for their children. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have further placed them at increased risk. The closure of bars, restaurants and other establishments where Venezuelan migrants usually found employment have led to loss of income and reduced ability to meet basic needs without any option of returning home; thus, causing anxiety and despair for Venezuelans residing in T&T. This situation makes it more likely for migrants to become easy targets of criminal groups.
Support for refugees and migrants is provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its three implementing partners: Living Water Community, the Rape Crisis Society and the Family Planning Association. These partners provide case management support and food to vulnerable migrants, legal assistance, mental health, psychosocial support, sexual and reproductive health services.
Anti-immigrant stigma which has exacerbated racial/ethnic health disparities on the island has generated racialized fears among residents that undocumented migrants are potential carriers of disease. Thus, while local newspaper articles report on the manifestation of xenophobia towards Venezuelans in the form of evictions from rented accommodation, a 2019 IOM report noted that 70% of their Venezuelan respondents felt discriminated against because of their nationality.
Furthermore, normalizing their status has become very challenging given the stipulated conditions specified in the Immigration Act Chapter 18:01 of 1969. The Immigration Act does not address the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. Hence, the government classifies asylum seekers and those granted refugee status by the UNHCR as undocumented migrants. Within this context, Venezuelans lack the necessary means to reside legally or support themselves and their families.
Trinidad and Tobago’s response to the Venezuelan crisis
Notwithstanding the growing numbers of Venezuelan citizens arriving in search of refuge, Trinidad and Tobago’s authorities have not incorporated the Refugee Convention into domestic law. Instead, the Prime Minister publicly announced in December 2020 that state assistance was based on goodwill and availability of resources, adding that refugee camps would not be created to avoid encouraging ‘illegal migration’.
Instead of sanctuary, T&T have implemented a visa system for Venezuelans and embarked on a registration process to (1) document people in the country with a legal status, (2) grant amnesty to those who entered irregularly, and (3) give a registration card to both groups which allows them to reside and work for a fixed period. As part of this approach, between 31st May - 19th June 2019, the State registered approximately 16,500 Venezuelans and extended their stay until December 2020. A re-registration of this group is ongoing in March 2021 and will provide an extension of 6 months depending on appropriate documentation. Independent monitor ACAPS estimated that in May 2019 there were 60,000 Venezuelans in T&T. UNHCR reported that as of 30th September, 2020 there were 14,241 pending asylum claims in Trinidad and Tobago and 2,514 recognised refugees. In a clear signal of its intent to put the criminal justice system to work in managing mass mobility, the Government of T&T assigned the Ministry of National Security the role of managing the Amnesty process although UNHCR determines the outcome of international protection claims.
Trinidad and Tobago’s borders have been officially closed since March 2020. Only repatriated citizens granted state permission were allowed to enter the country. New arrivals have limited access to asylum, and face intense monitoring by border patrols as well as stop, search and arrest practices leading to detention in one of the two detention centres in the country (the Immigration Detention Centre in Aripo and a State quarantine facility at the Chaguaramas Heliport). In November 2020 the state allegedly illegally deported a group of migrants who had received a Court decision that prevented their deportation until their asylum cases were determined. The court also released 10 minors and their 4 mothers from detention because T&T’s immigration laws do not provide for the detention and deportation of children. Amnesty International also accused the government of criminalizing the irregular entry of migrants and refugees, contrary to international standards.
Conclusion: Re-shaping border criminology and managing migration
The Venezuelan migration into T&T deviates from the traditional Global South to Global North movement of people that is typically studied by scholars of Border Criminology, following instead a South-South pattern. Migrants are fleeing from a larger country to a smaller one. While finally, language and cultural differences (Venezuelans are of European ancestry and Spanish speaking seeking asylum in English-speaking T&T where the majority of citizens are descendants from Africa or India) create specific challenges to integration.
The Venezuelan crisis is unlikely to end soon. So, it is time for the T&T government to devise a better strategy. First, they should consider the regularization of undocumented migrants currently in the country and offer residence and work permits. Second, the T&T authorities should consider introducing new legislation or amending the Immigration Act to provide protection to these individuals. This has traction because of the 2014 ‘Refugee Policy’ which was not being enforced but should be re-visited and aligned with international human rights obligations including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) already incorporated into T&T law. Minors who are caught up in the legal lacuna, in detention, cannot adequately access CRC rights such as housing and education but this might change with legal reform. Third, sanctions by US governments have exacerbated pre-existing economic situations and have dramatically affected the whole population of Venezuela. As such, countries should be encouraged to drop sanctions against Venezuela, as noted by the UN. Replacing T&T’s current piecemeal policy regarding Venezuelan migrants and refugees with a structured legislative package, which outlines the specifics of hosting migrants would allay local and international concerns.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Chami, G. and Seemungal, F. (2021). The Venezuelan Refugee Crisis in Trinidad and Tobago. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/04/venezuelan [date]