CARICOM countries urged to help Venezuelans

Bert Wilkinson | 4/12/2018, 4:57 p.m.
Several Caribbean Community countries are beginning to sit up and take notice of the increasing numbers of Venezuelan nationals seeking ...

Several Caribbean Community countries, not the least of them being Trinidad, are beginning to sit up and take notice about increasing numbers of Venezuelan nationals fleeing to their shores, seeking asylum, medical treatment, meals and jobs as their country’s political and economic situations worsen.

In recent years, Venezuela has been in an economic and political meltdown. Nearly every basic food item is in short supply and the same is true for basics ranging for toiletries to cooking oil.

Mismanagement of the lifeline oil sector has helped to tank the economy, dry up foreign exchange reserves and stifle operations at both state and private sector companies.

The result is that Venezuelans are beginning to vote with their feet in larger numbers with each passing day, showing up by the boatload in coastal villages in Trinidad and also crossing the border into Guyana, seeking various forms of help, including medical treatment for malaria and other diseases.

But of all the countries in which Venezuelans are showing up, Trinidad is seeing the largest numbers.

Geographically the island is located just 7 miles across the Gulf of Paria, so it is quite easy for Venezuelans seeking better lives, even if temporary, to hop on boats and land in districts along the coast.

The island’s Immigrant Department said in the past week that applications for asylum have increased from five a year or two ago to 2,000 so far for this year. Officials say they are also not on top of the tally for those making it into the country illegally. What they know is that up to approximately 200 land in the country each week, looking for jobs, food and money to help struggling relatives back home.

In some cases, such as in Guyana, some of those who arrived illegally are hauled before the courts, tried, convicted and jailed or deported, a development that has irked rights groups and some local legislators, who urge a more humane approach and understanding of the plight of those arriving in the two countries.

Faud Khan, an opposition parliamentarian in Trinidad, this week urged government to relax rules regarding asylum seekers, taking into account the dire situation at home.

“Given the unique situation right next door, I am calling on citizens of Trinidad and Tobago and the government to recognize that our Venezuelan neighbors require special attention, much like the United States and European nations have done for those fleeing persecution,” said Khan. “As some of them flee to Trinidad, legally and illegally, we as a people must acknowledge that while their situation might be dire and as they seek refuge here, they must be treated with dignity and respect.”

Similar appeals have come from various sections of the society in Guyana, especially when local media carry reports of Venezuelans who are hauled before the courts for entering the country illegally and are jailed and put on the first available flight back to misery.

Just this week, authorities in Suriname, Guyana’s neighbor to the east, urged officials in border towns such as Nickerie in the west to be on the lookout for Venezuelans slipping by the system in Guyana and heading into Suriname.

Meanwhile, Trinidadian immigration chief, Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews, said that authorities currently have 67 Venezuelans in detention, most of whom arrived illegally.

“The numbers we have been seeing at the detention center—the majority of them—at least 90 percent of those persons have entered the country illegally or have a criminal conviction, either possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking or possession of arms and ammunition,” she said. “Last year, the figure would have been just around 28,000 Venezuelan nationals arriving at a legal port of entry. The numbers we are picking up who have entered the country illegally, we can safely say that larger numbers are arriving. And more are being detained.”

Down south in Guyana, the Health Ministry has beefed up staff at medical centers in border communities and sent larger batches of medical supplies, to cope with groups crossing the border seeking medical treatment and food and other supplies.