Venezuelan influx strangling Trinidad

Trinidad & Tobago Coast Guard fast patrol vessel returns after patrolling the Gulf of Paria.

(Trinidad Guardian) Leav­ing their loved ones be­hind in a coun­try torn by vi­o­lence, star­va­tion and po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion, hun­dreds of Venezue­lans con­tin­ue to risk their lives to come to Trinidad in search of a bet­ter life.

While the wealth­i­est of Venezue­lans can af­ford to come here legal­ly of­ten through the port of Ce­dros, hun­dreds more Venezue­lans board pirogues and fer­ries and sneak in­to the is­land through the hid­den in­lets and bays along the coasts. They sell their homes, fur­ni­ture, jew­el­ry, and even their hair to save enough US dol­lars to make the trip.

Since 2014, more than 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple have fled Venezuela be­cause of hor­rif­ic liv­ing con­di­tions. Many get a three-month tourist vis­it but end up stay­ing here for months.

Ce­dros Coun­cil­lor Shankar Teelucks­ingh said with the clo­sure of the Ce­dros port for eight days last week, more than 800 Venezue­lans are on stand­by to come to the is­land legal­ly in the first week of Feb­ru­ary, with about 300 card­ed to go back home.

“Many are flee­ing from po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion and have no in­ten­tion of go­ing back. They pay fer­ry op­er­a­tors US$200 to make the trip,” Teelucks­ingh said. Those who come il­le­gal­ly pay up to US$500 to cross the 20-kilo­me­tre stretch be­tween Trinidad and Venezuela.

Il­le­gal points of en­try

Dur­ing an in­ter­view, a se­nior of­fi­cer from the Im­mi­gra­tion de­part­ment said many Venezue­lans are con­tin­u­ing to en­ter the is­land through sev­er­al il­le­gal points along the Colum­bus Chan­nel where the Orinoco Riv­er flows such as Ica­cos, Gal­far, Erin, Chatham, Mon Di­a­blo, Buenos Ayres, and Quinam.

In Quinam

“In days gone by Quinam was once one of the most pop­u­lar beach­es in south Trinidad. How­ev­er, with coastal ero­sion and a re­cent rock revet­ment project done by the Min­istry of Works to ar­rest ero­sion, the Quinam Bay is hard­ly fre­quent­ed on week­days so peo­ple use that area for il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ty,” a source from the area said.

A man who works near the new­ly opened beach fa­cil­i­ty con­firmed that every Tues­day in broad day­light a boat­load of Venezue­lans ar­rive.

“You can see them look­ing scared and starved. They run out of the boat as soon as they reach. There are al­ways peo­ple wait­ing for them. I just turn a blind eye be­cause these days peo­ple who see too much end up dead,” he said.

The forests around Pe­nal is a wildlife sanc­tu­ary but with the ab­sence of game war­dens, pa­trols are not fre­quent. There is no cel­lu­lar sig­nal there, so arrange­ments are con­duct­ed open­ly.

In Erin, Los Iros

Mean­while, in Erin, vil­lagers said it is not un­usu­al for Venezue­lans to ar­rive at Los Iros and Erin Bay which is near­by to Chatham and Buenos Ayres.

Res­i­dent Paul Ne­hal said the Venezue­lans are well con­nect­ed and some of them may be in­to crime.

“There are peo­ple in the area who earn mon­ey from the Venezue­lan cri­sis. I have a van and they of­ten hire me to pick up the Venezue­lans from Erin and drop them in Ch­agua­nas,” Ne­hal said. He said most peo­ple are cau­tious about bring­ing the Venezue­lans in­to their homes in fear that they could be crim­i­nals.

How­ev­er, some Trinida­di­ans have tak­en this chance.

South Oropouche

One woman, who did not want to be named, said she res­cued two Venezue­lan chil­dren who she found wan­der­ing in a com­mu­ni­ty in Oropouche.

Un­will­ing to give their names, she said the chil­dren were brought in with an aunt who was lat­er de­port­ed back to Venezuela.

The chil­dren, aged eight and ten, stayed with the woman for sev­er­al months be­fore she bought a tick­et and took them back to Venezuela to be with their par­ents. The woman said when she went to Venezuela to drop the chil­dren it was like a scene from a hor­ror movie.

“I re­mem­ber walk­ing along a street and there was a place where a man sat with a big gun and there were dirty hun­gry chil­dren there with him. This child not more than three years old stood look­ing out…there with a cut over her face and blood stream­ing down. She looked at me. I cried but the tour guide told me don’t look. They could kill us. I stayed in my ho­tel room and I could not go out on my own. It was too dan­ger­ous. I feel wor­ried about the chil­dren who live there with no food, no med­i­cine, no help,” she said.

In Ce­dros

In Ce­dros, res­i­dents said Venezue­lans have been com­ing through Ce­dros for decades.

Suraj Chick­urie said in times gone by they used to come to Ce­dros to sell ce­ram­ic pot­tery and jew­el­ry. “Now they no longer sell in Ce­dros. They go to Point Fortin in­stead,” Chick­urie said.

Ter­ry As­song, who has been help­ing Venezue­lans at Bonasse Vil­lage, said many of them were good peo­ple. He said the Gov­ern­ment should find a way to help the Venezue­lan na­tion­als who come to Ce­dros by pro­vid­ing an av­enue where they could get med­ical aid, hous­ing, and food.

‘A bless­ing and a curse’

Venezue­lan Judge Manuel Romero who fled to Trinidad & Tobago with his wife, Lori­mar Sil­va and their two chil­dren said his friends were starv­ing in Venezuela.

“The cri­sis was so dire that they are break­ing up their fur­ni­ture and us­ing it as fire­wood,” Romero said.

Trinidad seems to be both a bless­ing and a curse to many Venezue­lans who live here. Romero said since he came to Trinidad in Au­gust last year, he has done a va­ri­ety of jobs in­clud­ing fish­ing, paint­ing, se­cu­ri­ty guard, labour­er, con­struc­tion work­er, and sales­man.

He re­fus­es to speak about the ex­ploita­tion he suf­fered but in­stead ex­pressed grat­i­tude to all the good peo­ple he met along the way who pro­vid­ed his fam­i­ly with food and shel­ter.

At an agri­cul­tur­al es­tate in Debe, Venezue­lan labour­ers could be seen work­ing hard to cul­ti­vate a hot pep­per es­tate. Un­like many Trinida­di­ans, they work in the scorch­ing mid­day sun. Most of them could not speak Eng­lish and de­spite their work­ing con­di­tions, they smiled when ap­proached by this re­porter.

A Venezue­lan who works at a store in Dun­can Vil­lage said she has man­aged to build a life in Trinidad but it was al­ways dif­fi­cult.

“Peo­ple think I am a pros­ti­tute. Long ago when I first vis­it­ed here, peo­ple used to treat me with re­spect, but now they think I am a pros­ti­tute so they no have re­spect. I am hap­py to work here. In Trinidad at least I can find food. Right now I am very wor­ried about my peo­ple in Venezuela,” she said.

Louis Ro­dri­go, who works in a cloth­ing store at Gulf City said it was painful be­ing in a place where he was not want­ed.

“Peo­ple have told me to (ex­ple­tive) get out of here. All we are do­ing is try­ing to live. I can­not wait to go back to Venezuela one day,” Ro­dri­go said.

Sev­er­al Trinida­di­ans said they were con­cerned that the Venezue­lans were tak­ing away their jobs and stran­gling T&T.

Mar­i­lyn Nep­tune said, “They are in­vad­ing our coun­try, many are com­ing il­le­gal­ly and are con­tribut­ing to crime. They are mak­ing things hard for us.”

Maris­sa Pe­ters of Fyz­abad said since the Venezue­lan cri­sis, pros­ti­tu­tion has al­so in­creased.

Ex­ploita­tion of the Venezue­lan peo­ple oc­curs in all sec­tor. In the con­struc­tion sec­tor, skilled Venezue­lans are paid $300 a day, $100 less than a Trinida­di­an con­struc­tion work­er. The un­skilled labour­ers get $200 a day while the Trinida­di­ans work for $300 a day.

Bring mi­grant laws—UWI pro­fes­sor

Faced with this ex­ploita­tion, Dean of Fac­ul­ty of Law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West In­dies, Pro­fes­sor Rose­marie Bell-An­toine said prop­er mi­grant laws were need­ed in T&T. She said no­body knows how many Venezue­lans are cur­rent­ly in T&T as at­tor­neys were find­ing it chal­leng­ing to get sta­tis­tics from the de­ten­tion cen­tre and chil­dren’s homes where the refugees are kept.

Say­ing the sta­tis­tics may be alarm­ing, Bell-An­toine said she was dis­ap­point­ed that ad­e­quate laws were not put in place as yet.

“Three years ago, we warned that it was go­ing to get worse in terms of the amount of Venezue­lans com­ing in and no­body was tak­ing us se­ri­ous­ly. Now there is some recog­ni­tion that some­thing needs to be done,” Bell-An­toine said.

Say­ing there was now a move to pro­vide na­tion­al cards to iden­ti­fy the Venezue­lans, Bell-An­toine said, “That is a good first step. The laws must be im­ple­ment­ed in a struc­tured and hu­man­i­tar­i­an way and not in an ad-hoc man­ner.”

She not­ed that the refugee cri­sis was hap­pen­ing through­out the world.

“That is why we have these in­ter­na­tion­al con­ven­tions to help us. We don’t need to rein­vent the wheel. Peo­ple are say­ing too many Venezue­lans are com­ing in, but it is a tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion. We have now re­alised that some­thing pos­i­tive and struc­tured needs to be done and we can get it go­ing,” she added.

Bell-An­toine, who has been lob­by­ing for the in­tro­duc­tion of leg­is­la­tion in line with es­tab­lished hu­man rights con­ven­tions, said over the past three years, at­tor­neys and im­mi­gra­tion per­son­nel have been trained on refugee rights.

“We need to ex­tend a hand of friend­ship in Venezuela,” she said.

Min­is­ter of Na­tion­al Se­cu­ri­ty Stu­art Young said last week that bor­der pa­trols will be tight­ened as the Venezue­lan cri­sis in­ten­si­fies. Po­lice Com­mis­sion­er Gary Grif­fith said the Air Guard will be mon­i­tor­ing the coasts.

Venezuela has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a steep down­ward spi­ral since 2012 as oil prices fell sharply, a year be­fore the late pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez died. His pro­tégé and suc­ces­sor, Nico­las Maduro, 56, has faced crit­i­cisms of eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment, cor­rup­tion, and po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion.

On Jan­u­ary 23, Juan Guai­do, 35, the pres­i­dent of the op­po­si­tion-dom­i­nat­ed Na­tion­al As­sem­bly, an­nounced that he would as­sume Maduro’s pow­ers tem­porar­i­ly, a move recog­nised by the US, Brazil, Cana­da, Colom­bia, Pe­ru, Chile and oth­er coun­tries in Eu­rope.

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