By Raffique Shah
May 01, 2018
Sometime in or around 1990, a large number of mostly Indo-Trinidadians, variously estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, fled this country for Canada, and successfully exploited that country’s liberal immigration laws pertaining to refugee status and asylum, claiming political or racial persecution in Trinidad and Tobago.
The “refugees”, who were really Trinis seeking greener economic pastures in a huge, thriving Canada, realised their dreams through the wiles of a pool of “immigration lawyers” who, for handsome fees, beat the system and won them the right to live and work there. I imagine that most of them remain residents of Canada to this day, and they are happy in their adopted homeland.
That their actions condemned the 99 percent of Trinidadians and Tobagonians who stayed in this country and weathered the economic recession to having to secure visas to enter Canada thereafter was of no concern to them. They achieved their selfish goals, and that is all that mattered to them.
We who never contemplated abandoning our country during tough times, battled and survived, and, indeed, helped revive the economy and survive politicians of various persuasions. While we cannot claim to have created paradise—in fact, we are acutely aware of the many flaws that bedevil the society—we have not done too badly.
We can justly and genuinely say, each of us, “This is my own, my native land.”
Fast forward to the crises that afflict neighbouring Venezuela, a political and economic maelstrom that has brought this giant-of-a-country to its knees. Without doubt, the collapse has come about because of a combination of factors—political and economic mismanagement, plummeting commodity prices, corruption, sabotage and more.
Ours is not to reason why Venezuela’s economy crashed. That is a matter for Venezuelans to do, and to deal with. What we know is its impact on the population, certainly on the poor and middle classes, has been devastating. And what is of concern to us is the large numbers of Venezuelans who have and continue to seek refuge in T&T, most of them coming here by boat on day trips to shop for goods they cannot get in their shops, or staying here, legally or illegally, seeking jobs to earn money to care for their families back home.
From what I have read and heard, a miniscule number of them are seeking political asylum, claiming persecution by the Nicolas Maduro government. These, in my view, should be carefully screened, made to provide ample proof of their plights for several reasons.
Based on what we know from the public domain, Venezuelans can still vote for (or against) a president and government of their choice. In fact, I think presidential elections are set for sometime this month (May). They enjoy the right to protest, even to wear gas masks when they do (what will we say if such happens here?). And while scores of Maduro’s opponents have been arrested, beaten and jailed, or in fewer instances killed, the situation there is vastly milder than what’s happening in countries such as Myanmar, Yemen, Syria and the Phillipines.
Moreover, the T&T government must maintain good relations with whoever occupies the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, so we cannot be seen to be “taking sides” or interfering in our neighbour’s politics—which might be the perception should we grant political asylum to opposition activists.
Our main focus must be on how we treat with the thousands who seek economic relief in T&T. Government should have instituted clear policies on the basis on which we would allow Venezuelans (as well as persons from other Caribbean countries) to stay here for any duration, be it one night or one year. In the face of our own economic woes, the fact that our resources are stretched to their limits to enable our own people to enjoy reasonable living conditions, means that we cannot cope with any large influx of Venezuelans, or other nationalities.
These realities accepted, we also cannot escape the historical traffic of people from both countries who have forged friendships, especially those from Eastern Venezuela and South-Western Trinidad. Hell, I live in Claxton Bay, close to Trinidad Cement Limited’s port, and for more than 40 years I have encountered Venezuelans shopping at our groceries, buying barrows of dry goods.
Over the past 10 years or so, too, Venezuelan and Jamaican labourers and skilled workers have turned up on construction sites and won plaudits for their meticulousness and work ethics. In fact, contractors are happy to hire them over lazy Trinis. And they stay for short periods, repatriate their earnings, care for their families before returning here for another six months or so-all of these activities occurring beneath the radar of Immigration and other authorities, or with their tacit consent.
Of course, there is, and has always been the darker side of this Venezuela-T&T interaction. We know that most of the guns and ammunition in the hands of local criminals have entered this country via Venezuela. It is not surprising, too, that some among the new arrivals have been arrested for possession of arms, ammunition and narcotics. And we can expect a surge in Venezuelan prostitutes.
Government needs to institute immigration policies to enable the authorities to more effectively and efficiently manage the flow of foreigners into T&T. We must find ways of extracting benefits from the temporary immigrants (they will return to Venezuela when its economy rebounds).
And I agree with Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley when he said no local or international agency will pressure this tiny country into becoming an unholy refugee camp.