[Mihir Bose on the screen. At the table: Jeff Foulser (l) and Philip Barker.]
In the run-up to the opening
Just days before Trinidadians staged their annual Carnival, police made a discovery that hit a sour note at a time usually associated with high spirits and pointed to a looming humanitarian crisis.
The local defence force and the police came across a group of Venezuelans living in a forest in the isolated southern area of Moruga, part of the mass exodus of people fleeing the economic chaos of President Nicolas Maduro’s administration.
According to Trinidad’s Newsday paper, the group of 17 included toddlers and elderly people, all surviving on non-perishable foodstuffs in a camp described as “heartbreaking” by Trinidad police. The find was the tip of the iceberg: the number of Venezuelans held in Moruga totalled 41 for the month before Carnival alone.
According to figures from the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform (R4V), set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 40,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants had travelled to Trinidad & Tobago by February 2019.
While that is small in comparison with the numbers reaching Colombia (1.1 million), Brazil (96,000) and Panama (94,000), it is a major addition to a twin island nation with a population of 1.4 million people. Refugees International reported that “as a percentage of its population, it [Trinidad] has received more Venezuelans than almost any other country”.
Trinidad & Tobago’s National Security Minister, Stuart Young, had only just announced plans to take a note to cabinet to offer an amnesty for the growing number of Venezuelans entering the country illegally. He added that the Trinidad government would look at identification cards and registration for Venezuelans. Details were also being worked out on school provision for their children.
Things have moved on since April 2018, when Trinidad attempted to repatriate 82 Venezuelans, only to receive harsh criticism from the international community. In the intervening time, Trinidad security officials have had to respond to increasing incidents of Venezuelans caught up in trafficking, drug crimes and piracy, as it becomes clear that Venezuela’s exodus is much more than a refugee issue.
Under the headline Venezuela's humanitarian crisis puts Trinidad and Tobago's refugee policy under the microscope, the analysis website Global Voices (GV) said in February that Trinidad, having adopted a national policy on refugee and asylum matters in 2014, had failed to implement it and provide the protection principles needed for asylum seekers and refugees.
GV said that a Catholic charity, Living Water Community, had offered to help the government implement a regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan, designed to meet the needs of Venezuelans fleeing the country. GV quoted sources as saying that Trinidad had been slow to move on such actions because of its gas and oil dealings with the Maduro government in Caracas.
As well as the cabinet note recommending the processing of Venezuelan migrants in Trinidad, the authorities will also set up a military base in Moruga to stop the isolated region becoming a haven for trafficking, drug and gun smuggling.
Dutch Caribbean links
However, Trinidad has not been the only oil-related partner to feel the impact of Venezuela’s crisis spillover.
Tiny Aruba houses a 209,000-barrel-a-day refinery, owned by Citgo, a US-based but Venezuelan-owned firm which has also become a pawn in the battle between Washington and Caracas. According to R4V figures, the Dutch territory, which has a population of 105,000, has received 16,000 Venezuelan refugees and asylum-seekers.
NL Times, an English-language Netherlands news website, said on 19 February that Aruba had received 200 asylum applications in less than two months. Prime Minister Evelyn Wever-Croes told the NL Times that the island had too few officials to process all the requests. "We cannot take much more," she said. The Dutch Red Cross has been raising money to provide food, medicine and shelter to deal with what officials describe as “very distressing situations”.
Fellow Dutch island Curacao, which has also depended on Venezuela’s oil industry over the years, reported growing numbers of Venezuelan refugees flocking to the territory of 100,000 people. As the attempt to get aid shipments to Venezuela’s opposition developed in February, the Maduro government closed its air and sea traffic with Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire, branding the aid as politically motivated. Venezuelan government officials also said that they would review how they do business with the Dutch Caribbean islands.
Guyana’s border headaches
New York-based Caribbean Life reported that even though next door to Venezuela, Guyana had been “topographically luckier” than Trinidad. It pointed out that in comparison with the seven-mile boat journey from northern Venezuela to southern Trinidad, Venezuelans first encounter Guyana’s “largely jungle communities” alongside the Cuyuni or Wenamu border rivers.
Caribbean Life said that “these desperate folks land mostly in the north-western border region of Barima-Waini, where native Amerindian villages have complained about the increased pressure”. It said that Guyana’s health ministry had set up five health centres catering to Venezuelans.
Guyana’s Stabroek News has been reporting harrowing stories of Venezuelans squatting in coastline areas, trying to eke out a living. The paper said in a 5 February editorial: “It need hardly be said that Guyana’s economic circumstances render the challenge of hosting arriving Venezuelans daunting, to say the least. Leaving aside the challenges associated with demands on key resources... there are also considerations associated with relationships between the host population and the Venezuelan refugees.
“The fact of the matter is, however, that the longer the situation persists, the more difficult and dangerous it becomes, since uncontrolled migration could inevitably bring with it genuine refugees as well as criminals. Certainly, it is a factor that the authorities here cannot afford to ignore.”
The Caribbean’s “Arab Spring”
The UNHCR reckons that on average in 2018, an estimated 5,000 people left Venezuela every day. In his column on Caribbean affairs, Caribbean Council for Europe consultant David Jessop compared the pending Venezuelan refugee crisis to Europe and the Arab Spring.
He wrote: “Europe learnt that, without prior planning and consideration, large numbers of people fleeing instability can rapidly create political, social and economic tensions in ways that polarise national discourse, change politics, affect foreign relations and redefine social thinking. Without clear policies and a well-planned response to the accelerating humanitarian disaster in Venezuela, there are good reasons to believe that similar consequences could follow in the Caribbean.”
Back in Trinidad, which with its continuing attraction to fleeing Venezuelans because of its still relative wealth and easy proximity, Roman Catholic Archbishop Jason Gordon urged Trinidadians on Ash Wednesday to help Venezuelans as part of their good deeds for Lent.
He told a congregation in South Trinidad, which included some Venezuelans: “If every single person in this beautiful country of ours reached out during this 40 days and help in some way that they can, this whole country will be a much more beautiful nation and we would become a far better neighbour.”
Trinidad Express: Venezuelans in Trinidad & Tobago may be allowed to work for a year
Refugees International: Report on Trinidad & Tobago
Caribbean Council/ Caribbean Intelligence: The Caribbean needs a planned humanitarian response