Already under pressure to provide health care, education and other basics for more than 50,000 mostly economic migrants from neighboring Venezuela, authorities in Trinidad were this week forced to cope with additional political stress after 19 Venezuelans drowned while trying to make it to the Caribbean Community nation.
The tragedy occurred in the midst of efforts by Trinidadian and Venezuelan efforts to meet to deal with a burgeoning migration crisis for which the small but oil and gas-rich island nation has been forced to grapple with compared to any of the island’s 14 other regional neighbors.
Media reports say that a vessel with about 20 people had left a Venezuelan border town a week ago on the turbulent seven-mile stretch across the gulf to Trinidad, but most did not make it.
Officials once again blamed organized crime syndicates for the deaths of the group even while sympathizing with them. The island’s coast guard was also forced to deny reports that they were forcibly sent back across the murky waterway in keeping with the recent zero tolerance policy of the administration of Prime Minister Keith Rowley.
Security Minister Stuart Young on Monday pushed back against allegations that the coastguard had sent them back across the gulf with low fuel supplies, telling the Newsday outlet, “I have seen all sorts of speculation and misinformation about the involvement of the TT coast guard, none of which is true. If this is an incident of human smuggling, it is very sad that once again the criminal elements have, through their nefarious activities, caused the loss of lives. I pray for the families. I have been informed that the bodies that have been recovered were close to the Venezuelan coastal town of Guiria. Our coast guard has been in touch with the Venezuelan authorities who confirmed the above,” the minister said.
Meanwhile, local authorities have in recent weeks moved to minimize the number of Venezuelans reaching Trinidad’s shores as borders have been closed for most of this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and because social services are under enormous strain for the influx of Venezuelan migrants, many of them with young children. They usually show up on the coast, sometimes in rickety boats, entering the island without medical tests for the pandemic.
The other regional bloc nation with growing numbers is Guyana, separated by a small river from Venezuela. Officials estimate that there are more than 40,000 but they do not appear to be too worried about the migrants as they are taking up jobs locals have been shunning in recent years. Guyana is thousands of times larger than Trinidad but with a population of only 800,000 compared to 1.3 million in Trinidad.
The latest tragedy is expected to put the Rowley administration under even more pressure than it is under at the moment as this is coming at the tail end of stinging criticism about the recent deportation of a group back to Venezuela that had included infant children and had sparked a national outcry and a series of court challenges aimed at reversing the court challenges.
Rowley had said after Venezuela had asked for the mini migration summit, “We have not taken a decision to register more Venezuelans. What we have also done—and the policy still stands at the time of registration if you were not among those who were registered who were here, who have come in over a period of time—if you were not among them and you turn up in Trinidad and Tobago, we will exercise our right to deport you, but of course it is on a case-by-case basis.”