Forced into Illegality: Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants in Trinidad and Tobago

The Americas are facing their largest displacement crisis in modern history. Three million Venezuelans − about 10 percent of the population − have fled their homes to escape political repression, extreme food and medicine shortages, a lack of social services, and general economic collapse. International attention has largely focused on how this crisis is playing out in some of Venezuela’s larger Latin American neighbors rather than Caribbean nations. However, the response in that region deserves no less scrutiny.

Trinidad and Tobago, for example, has received more than 40,000 Venezuelans but has done little to support them. While the government approved a National Policy to Address Refugee and Asylum Matters in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (Refugee Policy) in 2014, it is failing to implement it. There is also no domestic legislation for refugees and asylum seekers. Instead, the government considers asylum seekers and those granted refugee status by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to be undocumented migrants. Meanwhile, the government lacks a migration policy and its existing migration law fails to afford these individuals adequate rights and assistance.

The total number of arrivals of Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago is much lower than that in many Latin American countries. However, as a percentage of its population, it has received more Venezuelans than almost any other country. There are very serious concerns about xenophobia against Venezuelans in the country.(1) Furthermore, Trinidad and Tobago does not provide Venezuelans with adequate assistance or access to protection and services, nor has it offered any special temporary status to them, as many Latin American host countries have done.

Instead, Venezuelan refugees and migrants often are forced to live in hiding. In the words of one Venezuelan asylum seeker on the island, “Arrest, detention, deportation are constant fears for us – they affect everything about how we live our lives.” In November 2018, a Refugees International (RI) team traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to assess the situation of Venezuelan refugees and migrants there − the second in a series of missions that RI has undertaken to host countries to shed light on this growing regional crisis.

In Trinidad and Tobago, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants cannot regularize their status unless they satisfy various criteria stipulated under the Immigration Act − criteria that the vast majority cannot meet. Since the country’s migration policy remains a work in progress, Venezuelans who have fled their country are left without any means to reside legally or support themselves and their families. RI was told that, as of November 2018, an estimated 440 people were in detention in Trinidad and Tobago, where they lack adequate access to legal assistance and medical care. There have been no panels organized to independently monitor conditions of detention.

UNHCR conducts refugee status determinations for those who make asylum applications. Even those who are granted refugee status, however, receive only three rights − (1) not to be deported, (2) free movement, and (3) family reunification – and no access to legal employment nor other services (except some access to primary medical care which is afforded to all persons present in the country). And since late 2018, despite these rights supposedly being granted, some recognized refugees have even been charged with illegal entry. In a welcome development, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recently established a National Platform in Trinidad and Tobago. This mechanism is part of the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (Regional Platform), which the UN has set up to coordinate a regional response to the Venezuela crisis.

There are several ways that Trinidad and Tobago can improve its response to the influx of Venezuelans fleeing their country and the dire circumstances they would confront upon their return. One would be to institute a special regularization process, which would allow the undocumented migrants currently in the country to apply for residency and work permits. The government should pass legislation on refugees and asylum that reflects its international obligations under the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. These include commitments to provide access to public education to all children, regardless of their legal status, and access to legal work by refugees. Trinidad and Tobago should also reduce its use of immigration detention and use alternatives to detention.

UNHCR projects that the number of Venezuelans outside of their home country will rise to 3.6 million in 2019 as the crisis in Venezuela escalates. Lying just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago will remain a destination for many of those people seeking refuge. However, the absence of refugee legislation and migration policy, the inability to work legally, the threat of detention, and the lack of access to public education for refugee children will result in constant fear and hopelessness about the future for Venezuelans living there.

Recommendations

The government of Trinidad and Tobago should:

  • Establish in the short term a temporary special regularization or other emergency measures to give undocumented Venezuelans and other irregular migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees an avenue to apply for short-term residence and work permits.

  • Develop migration policies in the medium to long term that create opportunities for undocumented Venezuelans and other irregular migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees to obtain legal status, including the right to work, in circumstances where return to their countries of origin would impose unreasonable hardship.(3)

  • Enact legislation on refugees and asylum that enshrines the Refugee Convention and Protocol in domestic law and includes a right to work and access to education; also, clarify the government’s asylum policy and the status of its 2014 Refugee Policy.

  • Use alternatives to immigration detention and ensure that policies are in place to reduce the use of and time spent in immigration detention through the following:

    • Use Orders of Supervision or other alternatives to avoid detention.

    • Waive security bonds or deposits for asylum seekers when an Order of Supervision is approved, as was previously the policy.

    • Invest in systematic training for police, immigration officials, and members of the judiciary to promote understanding of the asylum process and refugee rights.

  • Improve access to the IDC and immigration detainees held in other institutions for independent monitors, medical personnel, lawyers, and staff of relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

  • Ensure that immigration detainees have easy access to asylum registration and to voluntary repatriation to their home countries if they freely choose this option.

  • Enable children to attend school regardless of their legal status.

  • Improve access to health care by ensuring that translators are available and train medical and social work staff on refugee and migrant rights.

  • Invest in information systems and enable UN agencies to collect relevant data on the numbers of migrants, their skills, and their specific vulnerabilities and needs.

  • Develop an anti-xenophobia campaign to counter popular misconceptions among host communities by explaining the realities facing Venezuelans at home and in Trinidad and Tobago. This would assist in countering popular misconceptions amongst the host community.

The United Nations should:

  • Build the capacity of local Trinidadian organizations to engage more with refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, and help them to access core funding.

  • Ensure that Venezuelan civil society organizations (CSOs) are included in the meetings of the new UNHCR-IOM-led Regional Platform.

  • Provide incentives to Trinidadian NGOs and international NGOs (INGOs) to engage specifically in areas that lack support, namely cash-based interventions, education, psychosocial support including counseling for victims of gender-based violence (GBV), and livelihoods.

The international donor community should:

  • Continue supporting the response to the needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Trinidad and Tobago. Donors should fund the $35 million Caribbean sub-regional refugee and migrant response plan.(4)

Background

Some 3 million Venezuelans have fled their homes in recent years, seeking to escape political repression, extreme food and medicine shortages, a lack of social services, and general economic collapse. This mass flight has presented Latin America with its largest refugee and migrant crisis in modern history. The crisis has affected not only Venezuela’s immediate neighbors but smaller countries in the Caribbean, which have proven much less prepared to receive these new arrivals.

In contrast to Latin American states, Caribbean countries have yet to offer special arrangements for temporary residence or work permits for Venezuelans. Indeed, most Caribbean states do not have laws on asylum.(5) The vast majority of refugees in the Southern Caribbean thus live in legal limbo. It is also exceedingly difficult for refugees to access basic services and obtain employment.(6) To make matters worse, human smuggling and trafficking networks prey on vulnerable Venezuelans. Both boat arrivals and deaths at sea are on the rise in the Caribbean. There is also good reason to believe that Caribbean states have engaged in the refoulement, or forcible return, of Venezuelans.

The Caribbean country perhaps most affected by the Venezuela displacement crisis is Trinidad and Tobago. It hosts at least 40,000 Venezuelans − more than any other country in the Caribbean. However, that number has been the same “working figure” for several years, with no official update. With a population of only 1.3 million people, Trinidad and Tobago has received more Venezuelans per capita than most other host countries in the region.(7)

Trinidad and Tobago is a diverse country, with migrants arriving from all over the world. It has special arrangements for nationals of member states of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), which allow for a six-month entry period while their eligibility for a “Certificate of Recognition of CARICOM Skills Qualification” is reviewed.(8) Then if the skills certificate is approved, CARICOM nationals are granted “indefinite entry.”(9) This open movement policy, however, does not extend to nationals of non-CARICOM member states, such as Venezuelans.

In recent years, migration and refugee influxes into Trinidad and Tobago have grown. In 2016, there were fewer than 100 refugees. As of November 2018, there were more than 9,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – 72 percent of them were Venezuelans, followed by Cubans, Syrians, and Nigerians. In April 2018, UNHCR criticized the deportation of 82 Venezuelans, including asylum seekers, from Trinidad.(10)

In November 2018, an RI team visited Trinidad and Tobago to explore the challenges faced by Venezuelans in the country and the government’s response. RI interviewed dozens of Venezuelan refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, as well as Cuban refugees, UN officials, and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs).

Endnotes

1. John Otis, “Trinidad Faces Humanitarian Crisis as More Venezuelans Come for Refuge,” NPR, December 18, 2018, audio, https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677325140/trinidad-faces-humanitarian-crisis-as-more-venezuelans-come-for-refuge.

2. This number encompasses those people held in the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) as well as those held in the Maximum Security Prison and the Women’s Prison for purely immigration-related offenses.

3. This recommendation includes a minor correction to language that appeared in the original online version of this report.

4. Part of the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.

5. Human Rights Watch, “The Venezuelan Exodus: The Need for a Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis,” accessed January 11, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/03/venezuelan-exodus/need-regional-response-unprecedented-migration-crisis.

6. UNHCR, “Venezuelan Situation: Responding to the Needs of People Displaced from Venezuela Supplementary Appeal,” January-December 2018, March 2018, http://www.unhcr.org/uk/partners/donors/5ab8e1a17/unhcr-2018-venezuela-situation-supplementary-appeal-january-december-2018.html.

7. Otis, “Trinidad Faces Humanitarian Crisis.”

8. CARICOM Caribbean Community, “Skill-Free Movement in the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME),” accessed January 27, 2019, https://caricom.org/skill-free-movement-in-the-caricom-single-market-and-economy-csme/.

9. Ibid.

10. UNHCR, “UNHCR Regret at Deportations of Venezuelans from Trinidad and Tobago,” April 23, 2018, http://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2018/4/5addb65d4/unhcr-regret-deportations-venezuelans-trinidad-tobago.html.