Diplomats and high level security officials from Trinidad and Venezuela are to meet shortly to discuss a Venezuelan refugee crisis in Trinidad as authorities there are growing increasingly wary about the number of refugees breaching the island’s closed borders in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The meeting is being called at the behest of Venezuelan officials who appear to feel that the time is ripe for officialdom to sit down and talk in the wake of last week’s deportation of a few dozen Venezuelans by the local coastguard and negative reaction to the moves by Trinidadian authorities in some quarters.
Local officials say the island of 1.3 million, just 7 miles north of the Venezuelan coast, is already feeling the pressure of catering to and hosting more than 40,000 Venezuelans, most of whom have arrived in recent years on rickety boats, fleeing economic and other hardships back home. Officials estimate that about 120 have drowned at sea while dozens more are believed to be the victims of human traffickers, a topic that is also likely to be on the agenda when the two sides meet.
“Currently we have closed our borders even to our own citizens in this pandemic and would resist all efforts by others who are hell bent on forcing open our borders through illegal migration to every economic migrant, gun runner, human trafficker and South American gang leader. All they will be required to do is to make the seven-mile boat trip and claim to be refugees,” Prime Minister Keith Rowley said in a recent statement.
He also complained that the island is under attack from elements in the Organization of American States (OAS) and the outgoing Trump administration, who remain angry with his government for not supporting regime change in Venezuela.
He said these were “using nameless, faceless people armed with innocent children to try to force us to accept their understanding of refugee status and international treaties where a little island nation of 1.3 million people must be expected to maintain open borders to a next door neighbor of 34 million people even during a pandemic. It is our little island nation which facilitated the registration of 16,000 Venezuelan migrants and even as we ourselves are struggling to cope with our own difficulties we have afforded them comfort, aid and opportunity,” he argued.
The 16,000 being referred to were recently registered by authorities and state facilities such as health care and schools have been made available to them. Security Minister Stuart Young says there have to be limits as the island is small and resources are stretched thin with closed borders and reduced economic activities. These are also separate and apart from the thousands who have already settled in Trinidad. Trinidad and neighboring Guyana have borne the brunt of the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Guyana is estimated to be hosting more than 30,000 as refugees simply cross the narrow waterway between the two countries each and every day.
“The Venezuelan authorities have asked for the convening of a meeting with the government of Trinidad and Tobago and I take the opportunity to repeat. Months ago I held a meeting, I led a delegation on behalf of national security with the equivalent minister of internal security affairs in Venezuela and his team. We continue those discussions. So this meeting is yet another one of those meetings,” Young told fellow legislators recently.
Venezuelan officials like legislator Carlos Valero have confirmed suspicions about an existing human smuggling ring, saying recently that some of the dozens who have disappeared in the border Gulf of Paria waters are most likely in the hands of trafficking rings.