By: N Gayadeen
After surviving the journey from Venezuela to Trinidad, usually by sea, in deplorable and unsafe conditions, and often illegally, many refugees try to start new lives in this twin-island republic. Though they had already gone through many hardships, another was not far off - the potentially deadly COVID-19. No one could have foreseen the novel coronavirus, but its impact on the Venezuelan migrant community in Trinidad is, sadly, easy to see.
Much of this vulnerable community has fallen into poverty and is experiencing the dangers and problems that come with it. Some, even more unfortunately, due to their undocumented status, have fallen victim to organized criminal groups engaging in prostitution, human trafficking and drug trafficking.
The Venezuelan migrant crisis was caused by the mismanagement and poor governance of Venezuela under the current head of state, President Nicolas Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, and under his predecessor Hugo Chavez from 1999 to 2013. Gradually, these leaders caused the once wealthy country to fall into economic ruin. This economic crash has led to countless problems within the nation such as: hyperinflation, devaluation of their currency, food shortages, lack of adequate healthcare, crime and poverty (Aljazeera, 2018). The economic and political unrest has caused many Venezuelan nationals to leave their homeland and migrate to other countries, either seeking to relocate with migrant status, or with refugee and asylum seeker status.
Over 4.9 million Venezuelan people have fled their homeland, according to Amnesty International, since the end of 2019, and upwards of 110,000 of them are currently living in the Caribbean, according to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. They emigrate hoping to make money and to attain a better quality of life for their families, either by way of permanent relocation, or by sending money back to Venezuela to assist their struggling families until they can safely return to their native land. This has resulted in the largest migration in western history.
Unfortunately, this crisis has caused the vulnerable in the migrant community to fall victim to Transnational Organized Crime (TOC). Some examples are the drug and human trafficking trades - the most prevalent transnational crimes in the region. Caribbean ports are very popular transshipment points for illegitimate business due to their strategic geographical location between South America, the United States of America, Europe. TOC has increased dramatically in recent years between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.
This land of opportunity for the Venezuelan people has come crashing down as COVID-19 has caused lockdowns across the globe as well as here in Trinidad and Tobago; it has been a great blow to our migrant community. Even worse is the upsurge of violence towards this community as criminals take advantage of defenseless refugees, asylum seekers and migrants whilst the country’s law-abiding citizens comply with “stay at home” orders imposed by the government.
In the migrant societies, those fortunate enough to have been gainfully employed were mostly engaged in retail, domestic work and construction jobs which were all termed “non-essential” by government orders. Months into the quarantine period, most are unemployed, or cannot yet return to work, and so are unable to survive without the help of charitable organizations like the Living Water Community (LWC). LWC works out of Port-of-Spain, providing food and resettling refugees and asylum seekers into communities; they are the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) implementing partner with assisting migrants’ needs.
When migrants face long-term unemployment, they become vulnerable to traffickers and criminals looking for easy targets as some individuals can no longer purchase vital supplies or pay their bills and rent. Unemployment has led many migrants to contemplate returning to Venezuela as the economic effects of COVID-19 became apparent. During this pandemic, the Ministry of National Security’s attention has been focused on limiting the spread of the virus and securing the borders rather than protecting the refugee community; thus, they have become easy prey for criminals.
Women and children are now common criminal targets, not only in organized crime like prostitution, which is part of the human trafficking trade, but also in incidents of violent crimes, like rape and domestic abuse (both gender based violence and child abuse have increased as many are stuck at home with violent family members and growing frustrations during the restriction period). Many young Venezuelan girls and women are being targeted due to the language barrier and their illegal statuses which frequently prevents them from reporting incidents of abuse. Many witnesses to crimes of this nature stay silent in Trinidad and Tobago because the media often fails to protect their identities when they are being interviewed. Regrettably, this causes many to shy away from speaking out about the plight of migrants out of fear of deportation, getting into legal trouble and/or retaliation by the perpetrators.
Another issue is that in May 2019, the Government initiated a registration process that allowed all migrants - once they had completed the process - to work and reside legally in Trinidad and Tobago for a year. As this time period comes to an end, migrants are now unsure of their future and whether their registration will be renewed. Those wanting to return to Venezuela, or migrate elsewhere, also face the problem of closed borders which prohibit flights out of Trinidad and Tobago.
The impact of COVID-19 on Venezuelan migrants in Trinidad and Tobago has been quite significant and has affected them negatively in every aspect of their lives. This is visible in the high unemployment and poverty rates in the community, the rise in crimes being committed against them, their increased vulnerability to and exploitation by drug smugglers and human traffickers, and uncertainty about their legal resident status and ability to return to Venezuela or move elsewhere.
The UNHCR in Trinidad and Tobago is working towards protecting these refugees at this time, although they have been limited in their operational capacity due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Living Water Community continues to serve refugees and asylum seekers. If you are willing to make a contribution to help support the needs of refugees, donations can be made at https://www.lwctt.org/giveback/.
Aljazeera. (2018, March 23). LATIN AMERICAVenezuela's crisis explained from the beginning. Retrieved November 2018, from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/04/venezuela-happening-170412114045595.html
Community, L. W. (2020). Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Retrieved from Living Water Community: https://www.lwctt.org/giveback/
Crime, U. O. (2020, May 6). COVID-19 crisis putting human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation, experts warn. Retrieved from UN news: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/05/1063342
Guardian, T. (2018, November). Venezuela: about 3m have fled political and economic crisis since 2015, UN says. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/08/venezuela-migrants-fleeing-exodus-increase-united-nations
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UNHCR. (2020, April). UNHCR Trinidad and Tobago COVID-19 Response. Retrieved from OPERATIONAL PORTAL REFUGEE SITUATIONS: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/details/75964