No Paradise for Refugees in the Caribbean: The Challenges Faced by Venezuelan Refugees in Trinidad and Tobago
Author: Milene Carvalho, 2019.
“Trinidad and Tobago, located by just 6.8 miles (11km) from the Venezuelan coast, has received the highest number of refugees in the region, with approximately 60,000 Venezuelans reaching the country of 1.3 million people (Otis). Despite the high number of arrivals, Trinidad and Tobago has been failing to provide legal protection to Venezuelans, leaving them in a legal limbo and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse…”
Image from Pixabay.
Five years ago, Venezuela was one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America. Today, the economy is in complete free fall. A set of circumstances such as the fall of the oil price in 2014 – which accounts for 98 percent of Venezuela’s exports (OPEC) – government mismanagement, corruption, and an authoritarian government drove the country from wealth to chaos (Fisher). Today, Venezuela is politically divided, with two internationally recognized presidents. On the one hand, Nicolas Maduro, who took office in 2013 after the death of his predecessor Hugo Chavez. On the other hand, Juan Guiado, who since January of 2019 is recognized by more than fifty countries as the President interim of Venezuela and is currently exhorting the armed forces to join his side in ousting Maduro (Fisher).
Meanwhile, the population is starving due to shortage of food, the country’s public health system has collapsed leaving many without access to essential medicine, and hospitals struggle to treat malnourished children (Specia). Inflation reached almost 1 million percent, and the currency is practically invaluable (Fisher). In search for survival, millions are fleeing, mostly by foot to neighboring countries. It is estimated that 3.6 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014 (“Regional Response Plan” 14).
Although most Venezuelans are heading to South American countries, the small islands of the Caribbean have also received thousands of refugees. Trinidad and Tobago, located by just 6.8 miles (11km) from the Venezuelan coast, has received the highest number of refugees in the region, with approximately 60,000 Venezuelans reaching the country of 1.3 million people (Otis). Despite the high number of arrivals, Trinidad and Tobago has been failing to provide legal protection to Venezuelans, leaving them in a legal limbo and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Given the dire situation in Venezuela, this paper argues that Venezuelans fleeing their country are refugees according to the Latin American document Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. This document outlines that refugees are those who are fleeing from “massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” (Cartagena Declaration on Refugees). Therefore, Trinidad and Tobago should provide a humanitarian response and legal protection to Venezuelans arriving in the country.
To discuss this argument, this paper explores the response to Venezuelan refugees in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the challenges for those who arrive. First, the paper analyzes the reasons why Venezuelans are fleeing their country, followed by an examination of the local responses in Trinidad and Tobago through an analysis of the legislation regarding immigration and asylum processes, as well as the responses of civil society and the government. Finally, the paper concludes with an analysis of pressing challenges for Venezuelan refugees and the government of Trinidad and Tobago; specifically, the high risk of human trafficking and prostitution, and the lack of access to formal employment.
Given that Venezuelan migration is a recent phenomenon, along with the fact that Trinidad and Tobago is a country that traditionally has received less attention from international organizations and news media, most of the data collected for this paper originated from local news media and newspapers, with a few reports from international organizations.
a) Venezuelan Crisis – why are they fleeing?
There are multiple perspectives that explain why Venezuelans are fleeing their country. From a humanitarian point of view, shortage of food and medicine have left the population hungry and influenced the high mortality rate, especially among children. Ninety percent of the population lives in poverty, which has dire effects on the level of malnutrition in the country. In 2017, Venezuelans on average lost 24 pounds involuntarily (Sequera). Due to a severe vaccination shortage, more than 7,300 measles cases were reported in 2017, while between 2008 and 2015 there was just a single record (“Venezuela: numbers Highlights Health Crisis”).In the same year, cases of malaria increased by 76 percent, infant mortality escalated by 30 percent, and maternal mortality rose 65 percent (“Venezuela: numbers Highlights Health Crisis”).
From a political and economic perspective, a combination of hyperinflation reaching almost 1 million percent, which rendered its currency almost worthless, a GDP that shrank by 19 percent, (Fisher) corruption and government mismanagement were some of the factors that contributed to 3.6 million Venezuelans fleeing their country which was once the richest nation in South America (“Regional Response Plan” 13).Currently, Venezuela faces an uncertain future; with two people under the mandate of President, the future of the country is more undefined than ever before. Since January 2019, Juan Guaidóhas been the interim president, recognized by more than fifty countries, while Nicolás Maduro has been the President since the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 2013. Maduro has proven to be an authoritarian leader, demonstrated by large-scale arrests and violent suppressions of any opponents (Brutally, Torture and Political Persecution in Venezuela). Maduro is supported by the military and denies any crisis in Venezuela, claiming that “Venezuela is the victim of world media attacks designed to construct a supposed humanitarian crisis to justify a military intervention” (Faiola). Maduro is not relinquishing power, contributing to frequent predictions of a possible civil war (“Maduro Warns of Civil War”).
Amid this political instability, it is unlikely that the refugee outflow will decrease in the short-term. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that by the end of 2019, there will be 5.3 million Venezuelans internationally displaced, of which 3.6 million will need assistance and protection (“Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan” 14).
Trinidad and Tobago and its responses to the refugee influx
Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island located 6.8 miles (11km) off northeastern Venezuela. Its economy revolves around oil, natural gas and petrochemical industries,along with the traditional tourism that runs through the Caribbean islands (Otis). The GDP per capita is one of the highest in the region, considered a high-income country by the World Bank (“Data for High Income”). With a population of 1.3 million and a territory slightly bigger than Long Island, New York, the country has received 60,000 Venezuelans since 2015; in 2018, the number of refugees and migrants reached a peak of 600 arrivals per day (Otis).
Trinidad and Tobago did not release any data regarding asylum requests in the country; therefore, all information on asylum gathered in this paper is from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to the UNHCR, between 2014 and 2018, 8,861 Venezuelans applied for asylum in Trinidad and Tobago (UNHCR Operational Portal). In 2013, only 43 asylum seekers were recorded, while the number reached 312 in 2016 (“Statement by the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago”). This means that 8,506 people requested asylum in a short period of time, between 2017 and 2018. Given this concentrated number of arrivals, Trinidad and Tobago evidently was not prepared, nor used to receiving such high levels of refugees. In a UNHCR survey, conducted with Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago, 83 percent of respondents indicated that they intended to stay in the country; thus, Trinidad and Tobago cannot be considered as a transit destination (“Monitoring Venezuelan Citizens Presence”).
a) Government response
The government’s response has not been favorable to newcomers. In April 2018, Trinidad and Tobago deported 82 Venezuelans asylum seekers, which the UNHCR and Amnesty International considered a “non-refoulement breach” (“Trinidad and Tobago: Deportation of 82 Venezuelans”). When asked about these deportations, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley said that “he will not allow his country to become a refugee camp,” adding that they “have limited space for 1.3 million people” (“Las razones por las que Trinidad y Tobago no acepta refugiados de Venezuela”), which was the country’s population prior to the influx of Venezuelan refugees.
In August 2018, Prime Minister Rowley signed a gas supply agreement with Nicolás Maduro, demonstrating commercial interests with the Venezuelan government (Otis). Therefore, friendly relations with Maduro may be one of the reasons why Trinidad and Tobago is reluctant to recognize Venezuelans as refugees. A Trinidadian opposition lawmaker, Rodney Charles, said in an interview with John Otis at the National Public Radio (NPR) that “the government […] refuses to label Venezuelans by entering here the refugees for fear of upsetting Maduro” (Otis).
While Trinidad and Tobago became a signatory of the Refugee Convention in 2000, the country only introduced its own a refugee policy in 2014, failing to include an asylum law. The 2014 document provides refugees with the right to work, to have documentation such as a travel document, medical care, and educational opportunities for children, among others(“Trinidad and Tobago: A phased approach”). However, since the policy does not have legal force, those wishing to apply for international protection in the country are regulated under the Immigration Act of 2005. The Act has 186 pages and 52 sections, in which none address the specific needs of refugees. For example, in the section titled ‘Persons who may be allowed to become residents,’ there is no mention of asylum seekers or persons who had received international protection (“Immigration Act”). Therefore, those who are entitled to international protection are treated by law as undocumented immigrants due to the lack of legislation tailored to their specific circumstances.
There is substantial debate among experts concerning whether Venezuelans should be considered as “refugees.” As defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is anyone who is fleeing from “well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1(a)). Although the definition of refugee as stated by the 1951 Refugee Convention is the most widely adopted by the states, including by the 2014 Refugee Policy of Trinidad and Tobago, it was broadened by numerous regional documents. For instance, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugee, a Latin American refugee document, considers refugees as persons who “have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” (Cartagena Declaration on Refugees).Such definition was incorporated in the national refugee law of 15 countries in Latin America and Caribbean, (Freier) which highlights the importance of the Cartagena Declaration and the robust legal protection for refugees in the region. Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago has not yet enacted a refugee law.
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention definition, most Venezuelans do not classify as refugees. Although many are fleeing political persecution, most are forced to leave due to extreme poverty and lack of supplies in the country. Since socio-economic reasons do not constitute an eligible ground for international protection, some may conclude that most Venezuelans are not technically refugees. However, Venezuelans can be classified as refugees according to the broader concept stated by the Cartagena Declaration mentioned above. In its “Guidance on the Outflow of Venezuelans”, the UNHCR states that “the broad circumstances leading to the outflow of Venezuelan nationals would fall within the spirit of the Cartagena Declaration” and “providing international protection is a humanitarian and non-political act” (“Guidance Note”). Other host countries in Latin America, such as Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador, are creating legal mechanisms to compliment a humanitarian response. Along with the regular asylum system, they issue humanitarian visas, residence permits, and regularization programs to those seeking protection (Seleen et al. 8). Thus, it is understood among the Latin American countries that Venezuelans are not merely economic migrants. They are entitled to legal protection and humanitarian assistance. Therefore, it would be conceivable to develop a similar legal response in Trinidad and Tobago, but the country has failed to provide Venezuelans with such adequate assistance. A lack of domestic legislation for refugees and asylum seekers leaves uncertainty on Venezuelan rights and protection. In addition, the country did not offer any special temporary status like other countries in Latin America, leaving Venezuelans in a legal limbo.
It is also worth mentioning that Trinidad and Tobago has ratified more than ten treaties concerning human rights, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Regardless of its legal definition of refugee, Trinidad and Tobago is subject under international human rights law, and Venezuelans reaching the islands should thus be treated accordingly.
c) Civil Society and International Organizations
As previously stated, Trinidad and Tobago was not prepared to receive high levels of refugees. As a result, only one non-governmental organization (NGO) has been working exclusively to attend to migrants and refugees in need. Living Water Community (LWC) is a local Catholic NGO that identifies the cases of concern for the UNHCR, and guarantees the U.N. agency access to screening procedures, protection, counseling, humanitarian assistance, and determination of refugee status(Phillips). The organization opened its first school to meet the demands of families with children and youth; however, one school has not been sufficient to respond to a high demand. In a survey conducted with 548 Venezuelans, the IOM discovered that more than 75 percent of the children that had been in Trinidad and Tobago for more than a year still did not have access to formal education (“Monitoring Venezuelan Citizens Presence”). The high percentage of Venezuelan children out of school is also due to the lack of ‘student permit’, an immigration regulation requirement which is available only to documented immigrants in Trinidad and Tobago (Julien). As the majority of Venezuelans are asylum seekers, refugees or undocumented immigrants, they do not have access to such document and consequently, cannot register for school. Some private education institutions may accept students, however, the exorbitant costs usually attached to them are a deterrent (Julien). As a result, most Venezuelan children do not have a chance to have formal education, preventing them to have better employment opportunities and hence, greater socio-economic status. This is a clear example of how the lack of legal protection negatively impacts the life of Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago.
In 2016, the UNHCR opened an office in Trinidad and Tobago with just one international staff member. Additionally, since August 2018, the UNHCR has opened an asylum registration center on the island of Trinidad (Ebus). The organization is responsible for proceeding with interviews and deciding on the refugee status (“Proteccion Internacional en Trinidad y Tobago”). Although the UNHCR provides guidance to staff members regarding the interview procedure, (“Procedural Standards for Refugee Status”) it is still unclear what are the standards applied to decide on refugee status when a country does not have refugee legislation. There is also a lack of data on the numbers of Venezuelans who have their international protection granted in Trinidad and Tobago, which prevents further analysis on refugee status determination. It is worth noting that although a refugee status gives permission to refugees stay in the country, the lack of national refugee legislation turns one’s refugee status practically meaningless, given that there is no provisions for the protection, rights and duties to a refugee in the country.
Human Trafficking and Prostitution: A Risk and Challenge
The high risk of forcibly displaced people being trafficked during their journey – or after arrival – is well documented. According to the Observatory of Organized Crime and the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Venezuela, cases of human trafficking among Venezuelans increased from 50,000 in 2014 to 198,800 in 2018 (Urrutia et al. 41). Among the victims, 70% are women, and 25% are children between the ages of 7 and 14 (Urrutia et al. 44).
According to the Sumarium, a news media expert in Latin America, authorities rescued 19 Venezuelan girls and boys between the ages of 15 and 19 years old who were in a prostitution network in west Trinidad in February 2019 (“Están en un lugar seguro”).A recent report from the Panama Post states that “Venezuelan and Trinidadian men arrive on the mainland to offer girls and young women an income of USD 250 USD per hour to become ‘company ladies,’” while indigenous people of the Warao ethnic group are sold as slaves in the insular country (Martin). As in any forcible displacement movement, some groups such as indigenous groups and young women are more vulnerable to exploitation along the route to a supposedly safe country. However, when there is no protection offered upon arrival, traffickers continue profiting and exploiting displaced people, as is the case in Trinidad and Tobago.
The legislation in Trinidad and Tobago is severely intolerant to prostitution. In the Immigration Act, under the ‘prohibited classes’ section, “prostitutes, homosexuals or persons living on the earnings of prostitutes or homosexuals, or persons reasonably suspected as coming to Trinidad and Tobago for these or any other immoral purposes are prohibited from entering and staying in the country” (“Immigration Act” 33). The tough legislation in Trinidad and Tobago leaves victims of sex trafficking with no alternatives to seek protection and denounce their exploiters. Countries such as the United States have specific visas for victims of trafficking, (“Victims of Human Trafficking: T Nonimmigrant Status”) which would be a possible solution for Trinidad and Tobago to combat human trafficking in the country. In addition, it is important to facilitate access to work for migrants and refugees as many end up in prostitution due to lack of job opportunities.
It is also important to note that Venezuelan refugees classified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) cannot lawfully admit in Trinidad and Tobago (Immigration Act 33). It is well documented that LGBTQ people are a vulnerable group in Venezuela who are suffering the consequences of the crisis much worse (Stewart). Same-sex couples were excluded from government social welfare such as a family food bag scheme because they are not considered family by the government. Transgender people were more vulnerable to sex trafficking and prostitution, which raised their exposition to HIV/AIDS, and many are dying because of the lack of antiretroviral medication supply in Venezuela (Stewart). The severe economic and humanitarian crisis in the country has intensified violent acts among the population and discriminatory and homophobic acts have also been accentuated. Venezuelan activists reveal cases of electrocution and torture against LGBTQ people in Venezuela (Stewart).
Although there are no official statistics on the numbers of Venezuelans LGBTQ migrants and refugees, their situation in Venezuela is certainly forcing them to flee. Trinidad and Tobago, as a member of the 1951 Refugee Convention and signatory of numerous human rights treaties has the duty under international law to receive and protect Venezuelans LGBTQ refugees, and a law that prohibits LGBTQ people in the country is discriminatory and a clear breach of international treaties.
Access to Employment and Services
Although protected under international law, Venezuelan refugees do not have access to formal employment and other services provided by the State due to the lack of appropriate legislation in Trinidad and Tobago. They often face difficulties in renting a house, opening a bank account or having health assistance either because they are undocumented or because Trinidadians are uncertain of the services that refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to, as there is any law specifying it (Teff 7).
Some Venezuelans refugees reported being reluctant to access health services out of fear of arrest, detention, or deportation, as hospital staff often notify the police or immigration officials of their presence, even when they are registered as asylum seekers (Faiola). Although the 2014 Refugee Policy states that immigration detention is a last resort for asylum seekers, and for no longer than 10 days, (“Trinidad and Tobago: A phased approach”)the practice is frequently used for asylum seekers and other migrants – at times for prolonged periods (Teff 9).In fact, according to a Refugees International report, as of November 2018, 440 persons who are known to be in need of international protection are in immigration detention in Trinidad and Tobago (Teff 12).
Although the 2014 refugee policy recommends that refugees are entitled to work permit, in practice, refugees in Trinidad and Tobago are not granted work permits (Teff 15). This puts Venezuelans in a ‘legal limbo’, where they are susceptible to exploitative jobs (Faiola) and often – as stated above – resort to prostitution. Further, according to IOM in 2018, among those who are working, 90 percent are in the informal sector (“Monitoring Venezuelan Citizens Presence”). Working in the informal sector is worrisome because they usually receive less remuneration and there is no guarantee that they will ever paid. Venezuelans have reported working in Trinidad without receiving payment and when they ask for it, their employees often threaten them by saying they will call the police to deport them (Faiola).
It is worth acknowledging that the language barrier for Spanish speaking Venezuelans in an English-speaking country could challenge the acquisition of a formal job. However, many Venezuelan refugees are well educated; in fact, the 2018 IOM report cited above states that 46 percent of Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago obtained professional degrees and, “considering only those without any professional degree, 87% of them had completed their secondary education” (“Monitoring Venezuelan Citizens Presence”). Ultimately, this means that many Venezuelans working in the informal sector are positioned below their capacity in the labor workforce.
Thus, Venezuelan refugees constitute a potential source of significant human capital. Other countries that are receiving a larger number of Venezuelans such as Brazil and Colombia are taking efforts to regularize and integrate Venezuelans in their country by providing language classes (in Brazil) and developing programmes with private partners to include them in the workforce and in society as a whole (“Creative Policy Responses in Latin America”). Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago has shifted in the opposite direction, denying Venezuelans the opportunity to enter in the formal workforce by depriving their right to a work permit. As Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing a demographic shift involving a declining fertility rate and aging population, (“Health in the Americas”) integrating Venezuelans into the workforce could be a valuable opportunity for the country’s economic growth.
With the highest number of Venezuelan refugees in the Caribbean region, this paper explored the challenges that Venezuelans face when arriving in Trinidad and Tobago. Current legislation does not sufficiently address the needs of displaced Venezuelans reaching the island, and the government has shown no significant interest in responding coherently to the situation or to improve and attend to the needs of the refugees.
The lack of national refugee legislation creates uncertainties as to the rights and protections of refugees, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and preventing them from obtaining a formal employment and accessing health care and other basic services. They are also at risk of being deported to their country of origin, in a clear breach of the principle of ‘non refoulement’, stated by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Therefore, there is a pressing need to Trinidad and Tobago incorporate into national laws the precepts established by international documents such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. While a refugee legislation is not promulgated, Trinidad and Tobago could take the example of countries of Latin America and offer legal pathways such as humanitarian visas to provide a quick response to the refugees.
Due to the lack of legal protection, a scaling up of the humanitarian response in the region and on the island is crucial to provide to Venezuelans protection from exploitation and marginalization in Trinidad and Tobago. Although the UNHCR has a presence in the island, its activities are limited to the asylum procedure, while there is greater urgency in the protection and integration of refugees. Therefore, its presence should be reinforced, as the migration influx is unlikely to reduce in the short term.
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