An estimated 700 plus Venezuelan nationals have so far accessed the services of the Venezuelan Support Group (VSG) since it was set up three months ago for immigrants seeking refuge here from the ongoing turmoil in their homeland.
“So far, the majority of Venezuelans who come, come because they know someone who is Guyanese or their families would have been Guyanese; they just come and they find somewhere to stay, find work and try to be independent,” Programme Coordinator Winifer Sanchez, who is Venezuelan but of Guyanese heritage, told Sunday Stabroek.
According to Sanchez, since the VSG began operations, it has continuously seen between 50 and 60 Venezuelan immigrants every week.
Located in the compound of the Catholic Life Centre on Brickdam, the VSG was founded by a group of civil society and faith-based organisations to offer advice and assistance to Venezuelan immigrants. Among the founding organisations are the Amerindian Peoples Association, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), Transparency Institute Guyana Inc, Moray House Trust, Policy Reform Guyana, Red Thread, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Guyana and the Ursuline Sisters in Guyana.
Essentially, the VSG focuses on ensuring the smooth flow of information regarding policy and procedure to Venezuelan migrants entering Guyana; supporting Venezuelans in need of assistance to contact family or other persons; making known social and welfare services which may be accessible to immigrants with special needs; contributing to information-gathering initiatives, especially in interior communities; and providing opportunities for Venezuelans to communicate with other Venezuelans.
Funding for the organisation came from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who provided a grant that covers the salary of two employees and minimum travels for the organisation, while the actual office was loaned to the group by Bishop Francis Alleyne of the Catholic Diocese.
Sanchez said the steady numbers who have visited the VSG for assistance also include women who are alleged victims of human trafficking. “The persons who do the trafficking are persons who know someone in Venezuela and because of the situation there they go and present themselves as having food and places for these people to stay but when they come here it’s something different. The majority of the cases are like that,” she explained.
“When girls like this come, we try to help them and get to go to the relevant authorities where they can receive help. We have a great help from the IOM [International Organisation for Migration]… because they have a special project for human trafficking so we send these cases to them,” the Programme Coordinator added.
Co-President of the GHRA Mike McCormack, who also spoke with Sunday Stabroek, believes that not enough is being done at the level of the judicial system to persecute human traffickers. “The constant delay in the magistrates’ court is undermining the work of the police and other agencies who have been more effective in targetting traffickers and the whole thing is getting frustrating. The judicial authorities should pay more attention to this. Do we expect these girls to wait around for three years? The longer it goes, the less likely that there is going to be any outcome,” he said.
McCormack did, however, highlighting areas of improvement by the government in the accommodation of the Venezuelan immigrants. He referenced the recent case where 27 women, all foreign nationals, were detained following a police raid on a bar, which was also said to house a strip club. According to the GHRA Co-President, unlike in the past where the women would have been charged, fined and deported, this group had health checks arranged for them and visas issued to those without, while the owner of the club was arrested.
“We feel pleased that there has been a kind of learning curve of how to address this issue. [It] has really been addressed or taken on board by the relevant authorities and they are collaborating on with the office to the extent that we can provide information,” he explained.
In the past, Venezuelans were required to produce a valid visa and passport before entry could be granted. However, after mounting concerns were raised in regard to the deportation and imposition of fines on Venezuelan migrants who entered Guy-ana illegally to flee the situation in their homeland, the policy was relaxed to now allow migrants to enter the country once they have presented their identification cards and filled out an immigration form.
“Initially, we were critical of this visa and passport and fining and all that stuff but it’s all gone. …We feel that the government of Guyana has adopted a good position at the moment with regard to accommodating the Venezuelans that are coming,” McCormick explained.
Sanchez was also grateful to the Government of Guyana for having relaxed its immigration policy for Venezuelan migrants, particularly since she believes they are just trying to find work to support their families back home. “We would like to give thanks to the Government of Guyana for flexing the rules when it comes to the migrants; the situation in which they live in is very bad and Venezuelans who are coming need to work so they can help their family who are in Venezuela,” Sanchez shared. “Nobody wants to be a refugee, they just want to work and we accept with thanks the three months that has been given,” she added.
Very acceptable ways
Commenting on the utilisation of local resources to accommodate the migrants, McCormack expressed belief that the country has been able to absorb the numbers without any major stress on social services.
“We have not felt the need, partly because the Venezuelans themselves don’t like the idea of being refugees. What they want is to be able to hustle and find a job and do something to look after themselves. So, we have not fall under any great pressure to provide social services, such as housing or food. But the level of desperation is rising and while Guyana has always been a difficult place to think of coming to, partly for language reasons and partly for difficulty of travel, [the numbers] is not likely to lower anytime soon and may even increase,” McCormack said.
As a result, he feels that supporting the communities like those in the Mabaruma sub-district, which continue to absorb new arrivals, should be high on the agenda, since, according to him, it would not take many people to create a crisis.
“Hopefully the Venezuelan issues will not be politicised locally for cheap political reasons and that both parties will acknowledge that there is a major humanitarian crisis taking place and we have to act and do what we can. There is no negating that the border issue restricts the range of options that is available to the Guyana government in terms of the way in which it relates to Venezuela. In our view, so far it’s done that in very acceptable ways because we are making a response of humanitarian nature and has managed to keep that quite separate from the border issue,” he opined.
Meanwhile, Sanchez said the VSG has commenced the distribution of pamphlets designed to include information about human trafficking as well as the policy and procedure associated with Venezuelans entering Guyana. As she explained it, another area of concern has been the distribution of information to the migrants, particularly since it has come across cases where persons have been trying to scam Venezuelans into paying illegitimate fees for advice and/or immigration procedures.
“People don’t understand what the routine is; they come into the country and find a way to Georgetown without realising they should be checking with immigration at their ports. Like last week, one family showed up here in Georgetown and had to travel all the way back to Charity because the immigration office in Georgetown does not do that,” Sanchez explained.
Additionally, the VSG has a contact person in Charity, a popular entry port for Venezuelans coming to Guyana, working with it and that individual has taken on the responsibility of providing the necessary information to the migrants.
The office of the Venezuela Support Group is opened from Monday to Friday between 9 am and 5 pm.