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Forced into illegality: Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Trinidad and Tobago

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by Melanie Teff

The Americas are facing their largest displacement crisis in modern history. Three million Venezuelans − about 10 percent of the population − have fled their homes to escape political repression, extreme food and medicine shortages, a lack of social services, and general economic collapse. International attention has largely focused on how this crisis is playing out in some of Venezuela’s larger Latin American neighbors rather than Caribbean nations. However, the response in that region deserves no less scrutiny.

Trinidad and Tobago, for example, has received more than 40,000 Venezuelans but has done little to support them. While the government approved a National Policy to Address Refugee and Asylum Matters in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (Refugee Policy) in 2014, it is failing to implement it. There is also no domestic legislation for refugees and asylum seekers. Instead, the government considers asylum seekers and those granted refugee status by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to be undocumented migrants. Meanwhile, the government lacks a migration policy and its existing migration law fails to afford these individuals adequate rights and assistance.

The total number of arrivals of Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago is much lower than that in many Latin American countries. However, as a percentage of its population, it has received more Venezuelans than almost any other country. There are very serious concerns about xenophobia against Venezuelans in the country. Furthermore, Trinidad and Tobago does not provide Venezuelans with adequate assistance or access to protection and services, nor has it offered any special temporary status to them, as many Latin American host countries have done.

Instead, Venezuelan refugees and migrants often are forced to live in hiding. In the words of one Venezuelan asylum seeker on the island, “Arrest, detention, deportation are constant fears for us – they affect everything about how we live our lives.” In November 2018, a Refugees International (RI) team traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to assess the situation of Venezuelan refugees and migrants there − the second in a series of missions that RI has undertaken to host countries to shed light on this growing regional crisis.

In Trinidad and Tobago, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants cannot regularize their status unless they satisfy various criteria stipulated under the Immigration Act − criteria that the vast majority cannot meet. Since the country’s migration policy remains a work in progress, Venezuelans who have fled their country are left without any means to reside legally or support themselves and their families. RI was told that, as of November 2018, an estimated 440 people were in detention in Trinidad and Tobago, where they lack adequate access to legal assistance and medical care. There have been no panels organized to independently monitor conditions of detention.

UNHCR conducts refugee status determinations for those who make asylum applications. Even those who are granted refugee status, however, receive only three rights − (1) not to be deported, (2) free movement, and (3) family reunification – and no access to legal employment nor other services (except some access to primary medical care which is afforded to all persons present in the country). And since late 2018, despite these rights supposedly being granted, some recognized refugees have even been charged with illegal entry. In a welcome development, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recently established a National Platform in Trinidad and Tobago. This mechanism is part of the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (Regional Platform), which the UN has set up to coordinate a regional response to the Venezuela crisis.

There are several ways that Trinidad and Tobago can improve its response to the influx of Venezuelans fleeing their country and the dire circumstances they would confront upon their return. One would be to institute a special regularization process, which would allow the undocumented migrants currently in the country to apply for residency and work permits. The government should pass legislation on refugees and asylum that reflects its international obligations under the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. These include commitments to provide access to public education to all children, regardless of their legal status, and access to legal work by refugees. Trinidad and Tobago should also reduce its use of immigration detention and use alternatives to detention.

UNHCR projects that the number of Venezuelans outside of their home country will rise to 3.6 million in 2019 as the crisis in Venezuela escalates. Lying just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago will remain a destination for many of those people seeking refuge. However, the absence of refugee legislation and migration policy, the inability to work legally, the threat of detention, and the lack of access to public education for refugee children will result in constant fear and hopelessness about the future for Venezuelans living there.