By Shiva Mohan
Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) has been the recipient of the largest numbers of Venezuelan migrants in the Southern Caribbean, with conflicting statistics showing that there are approximately 40,000 to 60,000 Venezuelan immigrants residing in the island nation. Under international pressure and amidst domestic agitations, the T&T government has only belatedly acknowledged the presence of Venezuelans domestically. In June 2019, the government undertook an exercise called the ‘Migrant Registration Framework’, a work permit exemption policy, which commenced with a call to all Venezuelan immigrants on the island to register with authorities during a 2-week period. Touted as a humanitarian outreach that provides for Venezuelans to work legally in T&T for one year, this policy is in effect a short-term measure that serves as a rudimentary counting and surveillance mechanism, that is incognizant of migrants’ daily precarities and the indeterminate situation in Venezuela.
The crisis in Venezuela has prompted an unprecedented level of emigration of its nationals – as of June 2019, joint UNHCR and IOM numbers estimate that there has been an outflow of over 4 million Venezuelans (IOM 2019). Several neighbouring territories have been on the receiving end of this migration, including Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), the twin-island nation that sits just north-east of mainland Venezuela. It is suggested that T&T has been the recipient of the largest number of Venezuelan migrants in the Southern Caribbean (Human Rights Watch 2018), with numbers ranging from 40,000 to 60,000 people (UNHCR 2019; Vice News 2019) equating approximately 3-5% of the islands’ population.
On 31 May 2019, the T&T government undertook a two-week registration of Venezuelans, called the ‘Migrant Registration Framework’ or the ‘Work Permit Exemption’ policy (Office of the Prime Minister 2019a), through which 16,523 Venezuelans were registered (Senate Deb. 25 June 2019). This exercise marked a shift in government policy toward Venezuelans domestically. The state had been lethargic in its response, towing the line of ‘non-intervention and non-interference’ (CARICOM 2019), which is considered a ‘principled position’ in line with the regional CARICOM stance on the Venezuela question. This policy of registration has been touted as an opportunity for Venezuelans to work legally in T&T for a designated period; however, I argue that this short-term policy is piecemeal and incognizant of migrants’ daily precarities and the indeterminate situation in Venezuela. Far from a humanitarian response, this policy, in effect, works to expose Venezuelans to intensified cross-state regulation and policing, and does not address the critical challenges faced by Venezuelans in T&T.
The policy in practice
The policy was put into motion with an initial 2-week call to all Venezuelans on the island to present themselves to authorities to be ‘registered’. Persons there legally and illegally registered without penalty – what the state termed an ‘amnesty’ period. During this process, migrants provided their fingerprints, photographs, and evidence of their nationality and address in T&T, signing a statutory declaration that the information was authentic. They were also required to undergo a medical examination. In a robust media campaign, the Office of the Prime Minister and Minister of National Security outlined the provisions of this registration, stating that registered migrants would be afforded primary healthcare or emergency services only. Furthermore, there would be ‘no guarantee to the right to education, training or any other government service’ (Office of the Prime Minister 2019a). After ‘due diligence’, the exercise would provide the migrant with a registration card along with the right to work for one year. Initially, permission to work will be granted for a period of 6 months until reassessed. Persons not registered in the 2-week ‘amnesty’ period are subject to the regular immigration laws of the land.
The titles ‘Migrant Registration Framework’ and ‘Work Permit Exemption’ only vaguely reflect the genuine intent of the policy. Pronounced as humanitarian outreach to Venezuelans in T&T, this registration policy is a rudimentary enumeration, intelligence-gathering, and policing exercise. The work-permit exemption is not provided automatically. The state, in collaboration with international security agencies such as INTERPOL and ‘authorities in Venezuela’, verify that registrants do not have a criminal history (Office of the Prime Minister 2019b). This in turn surrenders migrants’ identities to high-level security scrutiny, as well as the political gaze of the Venezuelan government. Given the political upheaval in Venezuela, this heightens the precarity of migrants who may have fled the country for political reasons. Furthermore, if a registrant is found to have a criminal record, the Minister of National Security has the ‘discretion’ to determine if the registrant should be detained and deported. Given current circumstances in Venezuela, including the political disruptions and scarcity of resources, it is difficult to assess an individual’s engagement in illicit activity as criminal. The policy’s promise of non-persecution is, in fact, loaded with non-descript avenues for persecution by the state.
With the state’s asymmetrical focus on numbers and surveillance, the policy fails to consider the daily realities of Venezuelans in T&T. Discrimination, abuse, and exploitation have become part of the daily lived experience for Venezuelans. There have been many reports of ‘under the table’ job exploitation and abuse, rapes of Venezuelan women, unprovoked violent attacks on Venezuelan males by locals, and police abuse (see Bruzual 2019; Doodnath 2019; Kong Soo 2019). Trinidadians and Tobagonians have long held an inauspicious view of Venezuelans, in particular, there is a general sexualisation of Venezuelan women in T&T (Nakhid & Welch 2017; Kissoon 2019; Teff 2019). With the ‘influx’ of Venezuelans into the islands, this view has been amplified and has morphed into discriminatory and xenophobic characterizations of Venezuelans. These opinions have been exacerbated by the state through its (in)action and failure to address violence against Venezuelan immigrants. The transformation of T&T’s landscape due to Venezuelan immigration seems to have gone unnoticed by the state (John 2018). Beyond the provision of a one-year work permit, the state has failed to take any measures to protect migrants from the daily challenges of integrating into a new country. Therefore, the timing, structure, and intent of the government’s belated policy must be called to question.
The barriers to education and social services due to T&T law and policy, as well as the short-term nature of the one-year labour policy, demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding by the T&T government of the continually degenerating situation in Venezuela. A large number of Venezuelans who have migrated to T&T bring their entire families. At present, the laws of T&T prevent migrant children from accessing the public-school system. Venezuelans must pay for private education for their children, which presents a significant barrier for those fleeing economic deprivation and crisis. In addition, the short-term nature of the one-year policy suggests that the state foresees a prompt resolution to the conflict in Venezuela. However, the reality in Venezuela points to a more protracted situation. The Venezuelan economy is in disarray. With an inflation rate of 1.37 million percent in 2018, rampant food insecurity, and increasing social violence (Doocy et al 2019), it will require more than a few years for the average citizen to regain access to basic medical supplies and goods, even if conciliatory political efforts are put in motion. In light of this reality, T&T’s one-year work-permit exemption policy appears myopic.
On shifting the narrative
The state is attempting to shift focus and change the tone of the Venezuela-T&T migration discourse by erasing the term ‘refugee’ from the wider conversation. Although T&T is signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, to date, the government has failed to implement domestic legislation to operationalise the protections and safeguards afforded therein, despite numerous official and unofficial reassurances that the government has been working on drafting a local refugee law. The Migrant Registration Framework solely focuses on labour permit exemptions for Venezuelans, which suggests the state is characterising Venezuelan immigrants as economic migrants. This does not reflect the complexities of migration flows and the different motivations for Venezuelans’ migration (see for example Van Hear 2011; Betts 2013; Betts 2019), but instead places migrants into a neat and manageable category. The Minister of National Security recently confirmed this position, when he stated in Parliament that ‘refugees’ is simply a ‘buzz word’, further claiming that ‘we do not have refugees here, we are dealing with migrants’ in reference to Venezuelan inflows to T&T (Senate Deb. 24 June 2019).
The one-year policy further justifies the government’s pronouncement on the Venezuela question: that T&T is ‘not a refugee camp’ (Bridglal 2018; Christopher 2019). This position has been met with significant criticism from international agencies including Amnesty International and the UNHCR. It is a position that runs diametrically opposed to the May 2019 UNHCR ‘Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans’ which characterises Venezuelans as largely a refugee movement and calls for receiving countries to treat persons as such. The T&T government’s attempt to shift the narrative away from refugee protection is unsurprising. In the lead up to the execution of the current policy, the state refused any assistance from the local UNHCR implementing partner, the Living Waters Community, who made frequent representations to the state about the need for local refugee law, given the significant increase in asylum claims on the island. This move hinted at the state’s intention to discount categorising Venezuelans in T & T as refugees.
This registration policy exemplifies the T&T government’s reactionary politics to Venezuelan migration. The state’s shift from a position of non-acknowledgment of a crisis in Venezuela and migration at home to a one-year policy brings to light changing political agendas. At present, there exists a pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment among the electorate in T&T, who did not welcome the work permit exemption for Venezuelans. With the impending general election in 2020, the government has faced significant pressure from the opposition and the international community to take a position on the Venezuela situation. This quick move by the government to develop a policy with a limited lifespan as a response to these agitations, suggests an attempt to appease short-term demands, while maintaining political expedience due to the policy’s culmination the year of the general election.
As the layers are peeled back on the Migrant Registration Framework, it can be demonstrated that this specific labour initiative is short-sighted and vacuous, devoid of contextual, holistic, and pragmatic considerations to properly address the daily realities of Venezuelan immigrants in T&T. Further, the state’s strategic and timely presentation of such an initiative illuminates its reactionary positioning to external and domestic pressures, as well as the state’s use of an opportunistic moment and policy for future political gain.
Shiva S. Mohan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada. He is also an Affiliate at the International Migration Research Centre at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. His PhD research project, [Working title:] “Negotiating Islands’ Political Geographies: The case of the Maduro Migrations from Venezuela to Trinidad”, aims to critically examine Trinidad and Tobago’s response to the contemporary Venezuelan in-migration question. The research interrogates the bearing of the regional geopolitical landscape on the capacity of domestic response to this migration episode, and it also seeks to address the disconnections between Trinidad and Tobago’s im/migration policy and lived immigrant realities.
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