The international NGO, Refugees International (RI), cannot be said NOT to have a horse in the race when it comes to this country’s poor performance on the question of refugee rights. As in the case of Amnesty International, Mr Minister, RI has a very clear human and humanitarian rights “agenda”.
The organisation in fact clearly and resolutely stands on the side of people in distress worldwide and for whom little redress is seemingly forthcoming from both official and unofficial quarters. It has been active in countries such as Myanmar, with respect to the Rohingya; South Sudan with the internally displaced there, and RI has also been vocal on the US response to the Central American migrant “caravan”, among other emerging issues globally.
The fact that such an organisation has paid close attention to developments in T&T involving Venezuelan refugees and migrants is thus highly instructive. It is even more so that the report released last week appears to have captured the essence of the challenge we face in shaping an appropriate national response.
The report has, however, perhaps diplomatically so, not fully captured one of the more embarrassing features of the conundrum—a pervasive xenophobia in part fuelled by a view that Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis was, at least at one stage, carefully crafted propaganda.
Sycophantic chavistas parroting the predictable orthodoxy of “US sanctions, covert/overt undermining of democratic institutions, Venezuelan oligarchy, and commodity warfare” (an actual quote from one comment on last week’s column) have assisted in turning attention away from human distress and more in the direction of Cold War fantasy.
It is not surprising, in that context, that there has been no groundswell of multi-sectoral public opinion, including soundings from the major political organisations, favouring a more orderly process to address deficiencies in meeting stated international humanitarian obligations as expressed via our endorsement of conventions and treaties.
Neither of the two major political parties has also ever attempted to properly operationalise key components of the 2014 National Refugee Policy which prescribes “a phased approach” to the issue. For, had that been the case, official posture and actual practice over the past two years would not have witnessed routinised derogations of the six general principles of the Policy.
These include: confidentiality; fair, efficient and expeditious adjudication of claims; family unity (sounds familiar?); non-refoulement, and the principle of non-detention (which considers such action to be “a measure of last resort”). Tell me the last time the pro-Maduro devotees, and even now the Guaidó advocates, have cited any of these.
As a consequence, much of what Refugees International is now proposing remains some distance from the front burner of the public discourse but deserves critical attention.
For one, there has to be, in the words of RI: “a temporary special regularisation 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.”
This, of course, should also include the right of the children of asylum seekers to an education. From the prime minister’s belated utterances, it appears something is about to be done about such a need. Hopefully, there will be strong bilateral support for this and none of the xenophobic responses reminiscent of the move to bring Dominican students here following Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The other vexing issue that occupies the attention of the RI report is the gratuitous use of the Immigration Detention Centre. The organisation’s recommendation makes eminent sense: Orders of Supervision should be an option in lieu of current, overly-onerous security bonds to secure the free movement of asylum-seekers. This was actually the case in the past. The IDC has not always been option number one.
Additionally, and among other things, RI has also suggested that the government develop “an anti-xenophobia campaign to counter popular misconceptions” about asylum-seekers. Had I not been following this matter closely, I would have considered such a proposal highly embarrassing and probably grossly out of place. Sadly, our collective behaviour as a people has not built a case against such a perception. You would have to try very hard to convince me otherwise.