Source: Trinidad Express
Upon completing my PhD at the University of Miami, I returned to Trinidad and Tobago in 2018. The first change that I noticed moving back home was the large number of Venezuelans almost everywhere I went—in supermarkets, malls, taxis, and bars, even in the countryside where I lived. Eager to practice my Spanish, I often struck up conversations with Venezuelan migrants who were willing to speak to me, as almost none of them knew any English. From time to time, I hired Venezuelans to do odd jobs around the house. One day I offered Carlos, a migrant whom I had recently met, a hot lunch prepared by my mother after he was finished working. He told me that it had been a long time since he had a complete meal. I asked him how he came to Trinidad, and—like many other migrants that I have met over the last three years—he described his perilous journey by sea from his home country and illegal entry into Trinidad and Tobago. Carlos explained that he was compelled to undertake the life-threatening voyage because he could simply no longer feed his family in Venezuela. Several months later, I saw Carlos with a young woman and child, walking to the supermarket. He excitedly introduced me to his wife and baby, who had successfully made the boat journey to Trinidad about six months after him.
According to a joint International Organization for Migration (IOM)-United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) press release disseminated earlier this week, there are over five million Venezuelan refugees and migrants around the world, of whom 200,000 are estimated to be in the Caribbean. Given Trinidad and Tobago’s proximity—the southeastern tip of the island of Trinidad sits only 11 kilometers from the Venezuelan coast—thousands of migrants from Venezuela’s northeastern states of Delta Amacuro, Monagas, and Sucre have arrived in Trinidad via illegal channels. According to the latest statistics from the Response for Venezuelans (R4V) platform, there are some 24,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Trinidad and Tobago. This figure, however, is not representative of the true size of the Venezuelan migrant population, given that many continue to enter through irregular means and remain undocumented. Other sources estimate the number of Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago to be between 40,000 to 60,000, although comprehensive and accurate data remains lacking.
In 2019, the Trinidadian government responded to the migratory influx by offering amnesty to Venezuelans who had entered the country illegally. The government’s Migration Registration Framework (MRF) was implemented between May 31, 2019 and June 14, 2019. The framework afforded Venezuelans who had entered the country through both regular and irregular channels the opportunity to stay and work legally in Trinidad and Tobago for one year. It also offered Venezuelans access to primary health care. During the registration period in June 2019, 16,535 Venezuelans were granted MRF Cards, which would be initially valid for six months. In January 2020, former Minister of National Security Stuart Young announced that there would be an automatic six-month extension to the amnesty period; given the COVID-19 pandemic, the period was extended further to December 2020. Trinidad and Tobago’s announcement of its offer of amnesty set off a rush of Venezuelan migrants seeking to arrive in time for the registration period. Even after the registration period closed, relatives of registered migrants still undertook the risky journey in order to be reunited with their families. Carlos’ wife and child were only one such example.
On December 17, 2020, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley announced another extension, this time until June 3, 2021. During this six-month extension period, already-registered Venezuelans were required to re-register. This exercise took place in March 2021. The Ministry of National Security reported that, as of March 26, 2021, approximately 13,800 of the registered migrants participated in the re-registration exercise.
On April 23, 2021, Crónica Uno reported that a boat that had departed, Tucupita, Delta Amacuro state, bound for Trinidad and Tobago—carrying on board thirty passengers consisting of men, women, and children—had sunk off of the Paria Peninsula. According to Crónica Uno, the tragedy was confirmed by relatives of the victims; a video, showing four passengers being rescued by a Venezuelan vessel, was also circulated by media outlets. On April 27, 2021, the Trinidad Guardian reported that:
“Venezuelan authorities have reported that six passengers aboard a vessel, which capsized in a strait of the sea known as Boca de Serpiente (Snake’s Mouth) around 4 am last Thursday, have been confirmed dead. Seven survivors were rescued and a dozen more remain missing. […] Others swam for long distances before being picked up by other boats. One body washed ashore at Fullarton Beach [Trinidad] on Sunday.”
This recent maritime disaster bears remarkable similarities to another tragedy that occurred late last year, when an overloaded boat carrying 41 Venezuelans capsized off of the port of Güiria, drowning all occupants.
Since I knew that he hailed from Tucupita, I contacted Carlos and asked if he knew anyone aboard the boat. He told me that among the victims was a 17-year-old girl he knew from his town. The outpouring of grief by the Venezuelan migrant population in Trinidad was palpable on social media. In a popular Facebook group called Venezolanos en Trinidad y Tobago, a member wrote the following: “Una oración por mi Delta querido de luto. Triste ver como paisanos huyen del hambre, la miseria y la desesperación. Buscan una mejor calidad de vida y mueren en el intento #TUCUPITA.” (This message translates to: “A prayer for my dear mourning Delta. Sad to see how countrymen flee hunger, misery, and desperation. They search for a better quality of life and die during the attempt”).
Despite the country’s borders being closed for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuelans continue to undertake dangerous boat journeys to Trinidad and Tobago, usually departing either from Tucupita or Güiria. Migrants have told me that the cost of the trip ranges between USD $100 to USD $300. Fishing boats—almost always overloaded with between 15 to 30 passengers—are used to transport migrants. While the voyage, in theory, should take only about half an hour, the actual journey takes days, since smugglers have to avoid vessels from both the Venezuelan and Trinidadian coast guards. Migrants leaving Venezuela from Tucupita normally wait for several days before departure in an area called La Barra, where the Warao—an Indigenous group that inhabits Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta region—provide refuge until the coast is clear. When they arrive in Trinidad, migrants land at different locations across the southwestern peninsula of the island of Trinidad; by the time they arrive, transportation is organized to take them to their families and friends in various parts of the country. According to a recent article in the Trinidad Guardian, “[…] 91 illegal ports were identified around [Trinidad and Tobago]. This was mapped out by the T&T Coast Guard. An eight-month human trafficking investigation in the Caribbean by Dr. Justine Pierre unearthed an expansive human trafficking and smuggling ring involving senior law enforcement officers in [Trinidad and Tobago] who assist with entry.”
As Trinidad and Tobago currently battles a surge in COVID-19 cases—corresponding to increasing cases of the Brazilian variant—many Trinidadians are concerned that illegal migration could be contributing to the spread of COVID-19. In an April 26 press release, Eduardo Stein, Joint Special Representative of UNHCR and IOM for Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants, stated:
“The establishment of regular and safe pathways, including through humanitarian visas and family reunification, as well as the implementation of protection-sensitive entry systems and adequate reception mechanisms, can prevent the use of irregular routes, smuggling and trafficking.”
With Venezuela in the grips of an intractable crisis, and poor economic and humanitarian conditions in the country only being exacerbated by the pandemic, Venezuelans will continue to flee to neighboring countries. Given its porous borders and geographic proximity to Venezuela, the twin-island state of Trinidad and Tobago must rise to address the challenges of border security and illegal migration while fighting to control the spread of COVID-19 amongst both its national and migrant population.
Samantha S.S. Chaitram is a Caribbean Policy Consortium (CPC) Fellow and Fulbright Alumna with a PhD in International Studies from the University of Miami.