Venezuelan Refugees In Trinidad
By Azaria Cheddie On 04.06.2019
The human rights crisis that has engulfed Venezuela for the past few years has shattered the lives of millions of people. Melanie Teff, Refugees International consultant and displacement crises expert traveled to Trinidad and Tobago in November, 2018 to research the response to the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis. In her report entitled “Forced into Illegality: Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants in Trinidad and Tobago,” Teff wrote:
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.
Influx of Venezuelans into Trinidad:
According to the UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency) report dated March, 2018, there are an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago. 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. Furthermore, the 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. Trinidad and Tobago, lying just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, remain a destination for many of those people seeking refuge.
Lack of Legislation in Trinidad:
In Trinidad and Tobago, the lack of domestic legislation for refugees and asylum seekers and the lack of an effective migration policy have failed to afford these individuals adequate rights and assistance.
Trinidad and Tobago is party to the the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, which the country acceded to in November 2000. This is the basis for international refugee law whereby the country is bound to uphold the terms of these treaties by respecting the fundamental human rights of asylum-seekers and refugees. Since then, the country has failed to institute legal provisions for refugees to seek protection from persecution.
In response to official statements from current Attorney General, Faris Al-Rawi suggesting that the country was not yet legally required to establish systems for addressing the growing number of migrants and refugees reaching the Caribbean island as it has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention, Erika Guevara-Rosas, director at Amnesty International said:
Although Trinidad and Tobago has not yet adopted national legislation to guide its treatment of people in need of international protection, it is a rule of customary international law that a state may not invoke the provisions of its internal law, or lack thereof, to justify its failure to uphold the terms of a treaty.
The cabinet approved a national policy to address refugee and asylum natters (Trinidad and Tobago Refugee Policy) in June 2014, but is not currently implementing it. Instead, the government considers asylum-seekers and those granted refugee status by the UNHCR to be undocumented migrants.
Refugee Status Determination:
The UNHCR is working with the NGO Living Water Community to provide assistance primarily in the areas of access to registration and documentation for asylum seekers, as well as shelter, health, education and livelihoods. In 2017, the UNHCR, Living Water Community, and the Refugee Unit of the Immigration Division agreed on a process that would transfer responsibility for Refugee Status Determination procedures to the Trinidad and Tobago government. Until this takeover happens, the government has agreed to allow UNHCR to conduct Refugee Status Determination for asylum-seekers.
In practice however, those who apply for asylum or are granted refugee status receive only three limited rights including the right not to be deported, the right to move freely across the country and the right to reunite with their family. They are not allowed to work, leaving many destitute, and they are not permitted to send their children to school.
Lack of Access to Employment:
Due to the lack of legislation in Trinidad and Tobago that deals specifically with refugees, any issues are dealt with under the Immigration Act Chapter 18:01. Regulation 10(1) of the said Act states that no such person shall be employed in Trinidad and Tobago without a valid work permit. However, given their situation, many refugees are unable to meet the requirements necessary to obtain one.
As a result of the lack of clarity concerning their legal status, many Venezuelans have been living in hiding or charged with illegal entry or presence or working without a work permit/working illegally. Venezuelan refugees are left to take up menial jobs, regardless of their academic qualifications and previously held job positions. There are many instances were university-educated Venezuelans are forced to accept low-paying jobs as house-cleaners, bartenders and packing grocery shelves. Until the government implements effective legislation that reflects their international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees continue to be exposed to a lack of accountability for abuses of power by authorities and employers including labour exploitation and lack of safeguards to enjoy labour rights.
In contrast to Caribbean countries, Latin America has some of the world’s most progressive refugee arrangements such as the Cartagena Declaration of 1984, which is built on the 1951 Refugee Convention. Almost all states in Latin America, including countries confronted with the challenges on the situation in Venezuela, have national legislation on refugees. Latin American states have responded by offering special arrangements for temporary residence or work permits for Venezuelans. Trinidad and Tobago has neither offered any special temporary status to them.
Registration of Venezuelans:
At present, the Government is embarking on a registration process that would allow Venezuelans living in Trinidad to register during a two-week period after which they will receive a registration card, the equivalent of a “Work Permit Exemption.” The proposed period will register approximately 28,000 people despite reports showing that there are approximately 40,000 Venezuelans living here.
In an open letter to the current Prime Minister, Amnesty International addressed its concerns that the proposed period is likely to be too short to register such a large number of potential applicants and requested further information about the government’s plans to safeguard the confidentiality of those that register and ensure that it does not fall into the hands of the Venezuelan authorities. They were also concerned about the fate of those migrants and refugees who are unable to register during the stipulated timeframe.
Trinidad and Tobago is obliged under the 1951 Refugee Convention not to expel or return refugees to territories where their lives or freedoms would be threatened; not to share information with their country of origin; and not to impose penalties, on account of their irregular entry or presence to people in need of international protection. Mass deportations are prohibited under international law, as is the violation of the principles of non-refoulement, confidentiality, non-penalization, and the right to due process and judicial protection.
Lack of Access to Education for Refugee Children:
The lack of access to education for the children of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants is another issue of great concern. Trinidad and Tobago has acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is therefore obliged to make primary education compulsory and free to all children regardless of their legal status. According to Article 22, states are required to provide refugees “the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education.” However, refugee children cannot obtain the student permit required for them to attend school. Discrimination, administrative barriers and the lack of space due to overwhelming demand often result in a denial of access.
Local activist Sofia Figueroa-Leon, vice-president of the NGO Caribbean Kids and Families Therapy Organisation expressed her concern about the Venezuelan children in Trinidad and Tobago:
They are not getting an education right now. What will happen if these families can’t go anywhere else or return to Venezuela and decide to make this their home? Are we going to have a whole bunch of illiterate, ignorant people in the next ten years?
Other Social Concerns:
There are very serious concerns about xenophobia against Venezuelans in the country. As human smuggling and trafficking networks proliferate and prey on vulnerable Venezuelans, boat arrivals and deaths at sea are on the rise in the Caribbean Sea. Gaps are also present in the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence. Reports are on the rise of Venezuelan women forced to engage in survival sex, prostitution, and being victimized by traffickers taking advantage of their extreme vulnerability.
Access to health is also limited and there are cases of Venezuelans who have died in the Caribbean, after delaying the seeking of care out of fear of being detained and deported, including in emergency situations.
The absence of refugee legislation and migration policy, the inability to work legally and the lack of access to public education for refugee children will result in constant fear and hopelessness about the future for Venezuelans living here. The Refugees International report as mentioned above suggested several ways that Trinidad and Tobago can improve its response to the influx of Venezuelans fleeing their country:
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.
Furthermore, the report encouraged the development of an anti-xenophobia campaign to counter popular misconceptions among host communities by explaining the realities facing Venezuelans at home and in Trinidad and Tobago. This would assist in countering popular misconceptions.
Refugees International Report: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/506c8ea1e4b01d9450dd53f5/t/5c4f92ee88251bb7f8e69881/1548718848075/Trinidad+and+Tobago+Report+-+January+2019+-+2.0.pdf
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/StatusOfRefugees.aspx
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