This is because war, hunger, religious hatred, economic inequity and other push factors are causing the numbers of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to surge, triggering fear and uncertainty about how to respond.
Most academic studies indicate that all migration and over time the cultural assimilation that occurs is positive and beneficial but requires well-policed and fair national policies that are not subject to capricious interpretation or sudden change.
Published research also suggests that the numbers of migrants any nation can readily absorb will be limited by a host of factors, including geographic size, short-term economic impact, a country’s demographic profile, the need for particular skills, and proximity to the countries from which migrants are coming.
Regrettably, in the US and Europe, the policies and values that designed past humanitarian and pragmatic responses are now being manipulated or compromised by politicians who see advantage in actions that are discriminatory, increasingly inhumane, and self-serving.
In Italy, Austria and Hungary, for example, the governments have variously introduced measures against migrants that involve fences and walls, holding camps, forcible return, and even the criminalisation of citizen support for refugees. The effect is to remind Europe of its dark past and to divide it.
Such measures indicate how rapidly values can change, and how sight can be lost of the individual when sentiment turns from sympathy to concern as the magnitude of the problem becomes apparent.
Worse, in democratic nations around the world nationalistic political parties and opportunistic authoritarian figures are using the issue to propagate unacceptable ideas as a means to obtain or retain power. As a consequence, the issue of migration has become a blunt tool that pits emotion, false perceptions and racism against facts, humanity and social responsibility.
The Caribbean is not immune from this but is thankfully still largely populated by rational and humane politicians and caring citizens.
However, it too may be sorely tested if citizen xenophobia grows in nations experiencing increasing flows of migrants and refugees from Venezuela and Haiti.
In the case of Haiti, huge numbers of its people continue to want to find a better life elsewhere. Unfortunately, the political and economic situation there may again be deteriorating. Earlier this month, Haiti’s Prime Minister and Cabinet resigned following days of widespread rioting and unrest over an IMF-led decision to raise fuel prices, leaving a weakened President Moïse struggling to defend his own position and the failure of the country’s security forces to act to restore order.
In parallel, at the southern end of the Caribbean, some 1.5 million Venezuelans have left their country since 2014, according to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. They have done so to escape the chaos, food shortages, hyper-inflation and violence that are now commonplace aspects of everyday life.
Of the total number who have left, some 860,000 have sought asylum or other legal ways to stay in countries across the Americas. There appear to be no up to date numbers for the Caribbean. However, a June 2017 UNHCR document indicated there were 40,000 Venezuelans in Trinidad, while unknown numbers also continue to flee to Guyana, Curaçao, Aruba, the Dominican Republic, and more recently to some OECS nations.
Caribbean reaction has seen sympathy morph gradually into concern and intolerance, with a growing citizen focus on the strain placed on social services, governments’ inability to finance or manage the complex requirements of a refugee population, and a widespread belief that consequent levels of crime are increasing.
Earlier this year in Trinidad, in an indication of how politically sensitive the issue has become, the Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, reacted to international criticism of a decision to repatriate 82 Venezuelans, by observing tartly that the Republic was a small country, had limited space, and could not be turned into “a refugee camp” by the United Nations.
In The Bahamas, where the number of Haitians is now reported to be around 80,000, Dr Hubert Minnis, the Prime Minister, said last year that all irregular migrants in the country, regardless of their nationality, had until the end of the year to return voluntarily or be “pursued without respite, arrested and expelled from The Bahamas.” More recently, in remarks aimed at allaying citizen concerns about free movement within CARICOM, he has said that as The Bahamas was not a part of CSME, free movement does not apply.
The danger in all of this is that it is easy for legitimate concern to be transformed by incendiary language into discrimination, a desire to exclude, and ultra-nationalism.
For instance, in the Dominican Republic, in response to recent civil unrest across the border and a report from the Directorate of Dominican Migration indicating that nearly 70,000 Haitians were deported or returned between January and June this year alone, Pelegrín Castillo, the leader of the small but influential minority party, the National Progressive Force (FNP), has repeated his call for the construction of a wall.
Noting that the country was at increasing risk because it shares an island space “with a failed and collapsed state,” he called for his supporters to campaign for government to construct a wall to “demonstrate that the problems of Haiti must be solved within its borders.”
What is emerging globally are not so subtle changes in the language used by political figures about refugees, migrants and migration.
Responsible politicians in the Caribbean should observe the considered approach being taken, for example by Guyana and Barbados, and spend time establishing robust and fair policies, while explaining how it is possible to marry valid concerns to a measured, humanitarian response. If they do not do so now, they may find themselves before long being bounced by local demagogues into rhetoric and actions that represent values they and most citizens do not hold.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com
Previous columns can be found at https://www.caribbean-council.org/research-analysis/