Remembering the Golden Rule in accommodating Venezuelan refugees

By W. Andy Knight

Andy Knight

The Trinidad and Tobago government should be complimented for providing refuge to Venezuelan migrants who are arriving in large numbers as a result of the deteriorating conditions in Venezuela. Over 3.7 million Venezuelans have fled the country (most of them to Colombia, Peru and Chile). It is estimated that over 60,000 of them are now in Trinidad and Tobago.

Amnesty International has called on Caribbean and Latin American countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement and facilitate access to public services for Venezuelans, in particular the right to health, education and work. Yet, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Keith Rowley, continues to refer to the majority of those fleeing the desperate conditions in Venezuela as simply “economic migrants.” He is resistant to the idea of opening up a refugee camp on the twin-islands and believes that once that door is opened, it will be “very difficult to close.”

His concern that the interests of citizens of Trinidad and Tobago ought to come first and that the national interest of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago should be of paramount importance is well taken. There is no question that Trinidad and Tobago with a population of 1.369 million and a land mass of 5,131 km is completely overwhelmed by its close neighbour, Venezuela, with its population of 31.98 million and a land mass of 916,455 km. Trinidad and Tobago cannot afford to host many more Venezuelan migrant without placing enormous strain on its economy and social safety net.

Prime Minister Rowley is right, to some extent. In 2007, I visited the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, just west of Accra, which was at time home to about 42,000 Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees who fled the civil conflicts in those countries. I met at least 500 children in that camp who were severely affected by the war and found safety in that camp. The Ghanaian government was generous and welcoming to the 12,000 refugees when the camp was first opened in 1990. But by the time I visited, there were already signs that the people of Ghana and the government were ready to repatriate the refugees back to their countries of origin.  By the time the Buduburam refugee camp was closed in 2011, while many of the refugees returned to Liberia and Sierra Leone, many decided to stay in Ghana. So, it is true that once refugee camps are established, it is difficult to get rid of them.

But having a refugee camp does not have to be a negative. If you were to visit the Buduburam refugee camp today, you would be surprised to see the many houses that have been built by the migrants themselves, the busy open air markets and supermarkets that have popped up, the large number of corner stores, hair salons, cinemas, and houses of worship (churches, synagogues, mosques), cafes, health centers and schools. The place has become a thriving, bustling hub of activity (including that of artists, musicians and merchants – thanks largely to the aid of international donors and the entrepreneurial spirit of the refugees.

There is such a thing as international protection for people fleeing situations where their lives are at risk. And, credit must be given to the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago for recognizing this international legal principle and for implementing a registration system to track the newcomers and help them gain temporary legal residency on the island. But one wonders why the registration form was printed in English only, and why the registration period is designed to last for only two weeks. If there are indeed over 60,000 Venezuelan refugees now present in Trinidad and Tobago, then a two-week registration period is much too short. Despite the attempts in Norway to reach an agreement between the Maduro and Guaido on ways of reaching a political settlement in Venezuela, there is still no end in sight for the economic and social crisis that has gripped the country. It seems to me that the Trinidad and Tobago government is unrealistic with respect to the nature and gravity of the problem.

Having a one-year amnesty for those who entered Trinidad and Tobago illegally may not be sufficient. As long as there is risk to life for migrants and asylum seekers, international law (to which the Government of Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory) prohibits the forcible return of those individuals to Venezuela.  What will the TT Government do to unregistered Venezuelan migrant once that year has passed? Will they be thrown into prison in Trinidad? Or deported back to Venezuela?

Some of the migrants left Venezuela without passports, birth certificates or other identification papers. According to international law, refugees are not required to present such documents for obvious reasons. What will the TT government do if a Venezuelan refugee or asylum-seeker is unable to produce those documents? This is another unrealistic expectation of people who have fled a dangerous situation in their home country and are forced to leave with very few possessions.

Then there is the problem of not allowing Venezuelan migrant children to get access to public education during their sojourn in Trinidad and Tobago. This goes against the tenets of international law. According to both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Refugee Convention, all signatories to these international legal documents must guarantee the right to education for those fleeing countries where their lives are at risk. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also enshrines the right to education for all children, including those who are displaced. It is unconscionable for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to deny Venezuelan migrant children that right. The efforts of local NGOs like Living Water Community to provide a safe space for Venezuelan migrant children is laudatory. But the organization is careful not to call this space a “school” for fear that the government might close it down.

Providing a safe haven for Venezuelans during this difficult time is something that should be supported by all  citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.Venezuelan politician Delsa Solórzano reminded Prime Minister Rowley recently that Venezuela has, in the past, received and welcomed   citizens of Trinidad and Tobago “with love.” Who knows, there might come a time, God forbid, when people from Trinidad and Tobago might want to seek refuge in another country due to political crisis, social unrest, economic downturn or natural disaster. Now is the time for them to reflect on the golden rule principle: do onto others as you would have them do onto you.

(W. Andy Knight is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Alberta.)