Trinidad and Tobago does not have a refugee policy. That means that people who have been forced from their country by war, persecution and/or a natural disaster, have no way of accessing shelter here. Specifically, it means that the Venezuelan migrants who are getting into boats, braving rough waters and pirates to land here because they simply cannot continue to live in their home country, can only be classified as illegal migrants, regardless of how good their reasons are for leaving Venezuela behind.
In 2014, the Government created a draft entitled “A phased approach towards the establishment of a National Policy to address Refugee and Asylum matters in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.” It was adopted by Cabinet in June 2014. The draft has a clear definition for who would be considered a refugee, if the policy was made law. It details principals of maintaining family units, of non-detention and specialised training for the staff of the eligibility committee that would be needed to assess applications for approval and denial.
There are all factors that would have governed the treatment of the Venezuelan nationals, inclusive of the 16 children, who landed on these shores on Tuesday.
Dramatic videos shot after their arrival showed the group lying on makeshift beds in a police station cell. The images are harrowing and T&T's international reputation has taken a beating as a result.
Professor of International Relations at Alberta University W Andy Knight says having signed on to the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 2000, but not having legislation implemented at home, “the government has on the international level said one thing, but at the domestic level they haven't done the same thing."
The Government has said these are economic migrants and not refugees. Knight says this might have to do with the fact that deportation is then seen an appropriate cause of action because, "they are not going to necessarily lose their lives" if returned to Venezuela. But he also says with T&T in a recession, Government's actions may be governed by those concerns.
"The Prime Minister is trying to make the point that Trinidad and Tobago cannot afford to have the deluge, this influx, of refuges into the country," Knight, who previously worked at the University of the West Indies, said.
But there is a growing argument that outside T&T's human rights obligations, the Venezuelan migration into this country has the potential to add value to the local labour market.
The International Organisation on Migration's (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) conducted in 2019 gives details of the profile of the migrant to T&T. Some 42 per cent of them had a secondary school education and 17 per cent completed university. Most were single and between the ages of 20-30 years. IOM's DTM consultant, Leigh-Ann Waldropt-Bonair, says data like this should encourage policymakers to consider how they can better integrate them into the local workforce.
The 2014 draft policy ends by saying “states are answerable for the observance of human rights and are required to comply with the legal norms and standards enshrined in international human rights instruments." For some observers, T&T is dangerously close to violating that directive.