Refugees in Guyana

There were three stories on a related topic in our edition yesterday: the first dealing with the pressure being put on Region One’s health services owing to illegal Venezuelans entering and seeking treatment, the second a general story about the numbers fleeing our western neighbour and their destinations on the continent, and the third the fining of a man in the Georgetown Magistrate’s Court because he entered Guyana illegally through Eteringbang.
Taking the second one first: Reuters accompanied a busload of Venezuelan migrants to Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina, and reported on the journey and conversations with them. Colombia, and to a lesser degree Brazil, have absorbed huge numbers of migrants, perhaps around 400,000 in the case of the first, which has also been forced to place restrictions on some of the generous immigration concessions which it had earlier introduced. Taking into account the difficult living conditions along the borders with these two countries, that are not appealing, Venezuelans who can raise the money have been setting their sights further afield on the continent.
Reuters reports an immigration specialist at the Central University of Venezuela as estimating that around a million and a half Venezuelans have left their homeland in the last two years “in one of the largest mass migrations the continent has ever seen.” The reasons for this huge exodus are very well known, and the figures in the short term are likely to increase, since there is no obvious route to restoring our western neighbour to either political or humanitarian stability.
There were earlier warnings that Guyana should not consider itself beyond the scope of this Latin refugee crisis; Trinidad and Tobago and some Central American nations were feeling its burden already. We have had various scanty reports along our border about raids by sindicatos, Venezuelans arriving for health treatment in places such as White Water and Baramita, and even the appearance of soldiers in the first-named of these places, seeking food. Yesterday, we added to that with statements from Mabaruma Mayor Henry Smith, and Region One Chairman Brentnol Ashley.
Mayor Smith said many Venezuelans crossed the river wherever they could, and then travelled to the Mabaruma Regional Hospital by road. The common complaint was malaria, followed by measles. He had heard, he said, of cases being flown to the GPH. His main concern was that they were depleting medical supplies, and he had an anecdotal story about that too. Some of our neighbours bring items to trade, and recently, Mayor Smith related how he saw a man bringing over a pig, oranges and plants to sell. And in case anyone is wondering why, in a country which is suffering acute food shortages, someone should be bringing food to sell, the answer is that the Venezuelan currency is worth nothing – or virtually nothing ‒ so if a purchaser along the border requires items other than a pig and oranges and he can’t barter these for what he needs, he would have to go outside Venezuela in order to obtain a tradeable currency.
Chairman Ashley told this newspaper that several hundred people were treated for malaria last year, while according to Mayor Smith, many of them have at least one Guyanese parent, which will not surprise anyone. He also raised the question of documentation, and the fact that many of the health refugees are not documented. This brings us to the matter of the Venezuelan convicted for illegal entry in the Georgetown Magistrate’s Court. He had come here for work, he said, but acknowledged to the Chief Magistrate that he had no passport. He related that he had landed at Eteringbang, although the police testified they had arrested him travelling in a car.
Chairman Ashley told SN he had suggested to the President in a letter that Port Health authorities be set up, both with a view to screening human beings, animals or plants coming across one or another river from the west. He had also proposed that immigration officers be sent, while Mayor Smith said that he had raised the issues affecting residents in his area when the Guyana Revenue Authority were there almost a month ago.
To all appearances this country has no refugee policy, and no plan of action in place about how to confront a totally unanticipated influx in the near-term future. No one can predict precisely what will happen, but if President David Granger is of the view that it is important enough to go to border areas to reassure the population about security, then preparing for refugees – both the more modest numbers now and whatever might come down the line later, is equally important. At some point, the two might become not entirely unrelated.
For the time being, we are talking about humanitarian issues, but if we have no policies in place for dealing with those, then we would be circling around in a quandary if matters got worse. At present we have no absolute numbers for Venezuelans who are arriving, and we certainly do not have these figures broken down into categories. How many are just short-term visitors, for example, and how many of them seem to be staying for a longer period, or might have decamped altogether from Venezuela? How many of them have connections to Guyana, and would those connections give them a right of residence if they wished it?
Two broad areas have to be confronted, and they may overlap in many cases: one covers health refugees and the other includes the more normal motivations for migration, such as work, trade, seeking food, etc. Do we know, for example, exactly how many Venezuelans are seeking treatment at the Mabaruma Hospital, and what diseases they are seeking treatment for?
Where health is concerned, it simply makes no sense to refuse treatment to sick Venezuelans in border areas; disease is no respecter of frontiers, and we should be in no hurry to import ailments, particularly of the infectious and insect-borne kind, from our neighbours. Given our famously long and porous borders, it will be impossible to impose a complete exclusion zone, just as it would be impossible to prevent any member of our population who felt like doing so, travelling the other way. Disease has to be controlled, not ignored.
Are the reported shortages at Mabaruma and elsewhere really a consequence of an extra burden being placed on the health system by Venezuelans, or are they just a consequence of the more common inefficient distribution arrangements to the regions? Do we have enough medication in stock in the country to cover our own population and the refugees, and what are the projections for supplies for the next year and longer – depending on what happens to our west? If we do not have enough or will soon be put under pressure in that regard, is there no avenue by which we can access assistance from PAHO or some appropriate international agency which would provide stocks, at least for the commonest maladies.
But Chairman Ashley and Mayor Smith are right, those particular frontier zones need some bureaucratic infrastructure before the situation can be managed, and that is not the job of the army which is concerned primarily with security. After all the military cannot operate as Immigration Officers or Port Health Officers, for instance.
Of course, in the first place there have to be decisions about who will be admitted, and on the basis of what documentation, and in which part of Guyana. At the moment most Venezuelans are travelling to other Latin states on tourist visas, according to Reuters, and up until recently the Colombians were issuing a special visa for refugees. The Venezuelan mentioned above who appeared in the Georgetown court had no documents, and according to the Region One officials, neither do those who go for medical treatment, particularly. It must be said that it is not easy to get a Venezuelan passport for financial reasons, or just because of bureaucratic harassment, while from our point of view it would be senseless to require documents for health treatment. What is operating at present is an unofficial two-tier system which would need to be institutionalized at some level, after being injected with a bit of rationality, such as regulations about where one can apply.
In other words, a sick Venezuelan could perhaps report to certain health posts along the border, but not walk into the Georgetown Hospital unless referred from the border for some unusual reason. There would have to be decisions taken about where to establish health and immigration posts, and on what basis admission to Guyana would be granted. The government should not wait until events overtake them.

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