Forced migration and the treatment of migrants: The Guyana/Venezuela situation

Historically, women (and children) have been the softest targets for various forms of exploitation arising out of forced migration from conflict-ridden and poverty-stricken countries into neighbouring ones where conditions may be more bearable.  It is their single-minded preoccupation with their  survival and all too frequently with the survival of their children that creates a state of emotional being that prepares them to endure what, often, are the harshest living conditions conceivable in ‘host’ (surely a misnomer in the circumstances) countries, not least, various forms of degrading physical and emotional abuse.

Hosting women refugees means different things in different countries. The presence of groups of helpless women provides, for some, an opportunity for exploitation of one sort or another. Women are routinely pressed into service as sex slaves, the threat of being returned home or turned out in a strange country with the frightening prospect of having to fend for themselves being ever present. The abuse of refugee women is, all too frequently, perpetrated by state officials. Various other profiteering opportunists whose positions strategically afford them relatively easy access to women refugees also ‘manage’ such exploitative operations. These functionaries (commonly the military, police and immigration officials and businessmen and women) customarily profit from the ‘assets’ that they control by simply offering them for ‘sale’ to willing buyers.

The political crisis that continues to unfold in Venezuela and the attendant involuntary movement of large numbers of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries has afforded us in Guyana the opportunity to examine the phenomenon of the treatment of women (and children) from a much closer vantage point than would otherwise have been the case. While larger numbers of Venezuelan refugees have reportedly been heading for Colombia and other ‘shelters’ in the hemisphere, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago are the known CARICOM countries in which displaced Venezuelans have been seeking refuge.

In Trinidad and Tobago and to a lesser extent in Guyana there have been reports of exploitation of women refugees. In the instance of Trinidad and Tobago we have learnt just recently of reports emanating from the Director of the Police Complaint Authority regarding the trafficking of young Venezuelan girls through financially lucrative prostitution rings run by corrupt police officers. Here in Guyana reports of trafficking of refugee Venezuelan women are linked mostly to prostitution and to the ‘night life’ sector. In recent weeks there have also been reports of attempts at prosecution here in such cases. There have, as well, been reports of groups of Venezuelans, including women, who have reportedly found their way to the coast and whose living circumstances are reportedly Spartan, to say the least. 

The exploitation of women refugees arising out of crises of one sort or another in their home countries persists notwithstanding the presence of tomes of international rules and conventions governing the treatment of women and children in refugee circumstances. It is, however, the effective enforceability of those rules and conventions that have, historically, been a challenge to states, not least in those instances where the receiving countries lack efficient structures for effective refugee administration.  

 Among the best-known clutch of international laws regarding the treatment of forced migrants by host governments is the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, commonly referred to as the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Convention, not only provides refugee qualification criteria but also sets out the rights of individuals who are granted refugee status and the responsibilities of the host governments in such circumstances. As was mentioned earlier, however, effective implementation is usually the sticking point.

Beyond that, countries’ adherence to international treaties governing the treatment of refugees exist at the discretion of host governments and host populations since the refugees are usually not ideally positioned to insist on accessing what are, in effect, their rights, under international law. Accordingly, they are frequently left with little option but to their circumstances which might at least ensure, even if minimally, their physical survival.

It should also be borne in mind that the issue of the abuse of refugees and the denial of their rights frequently falls low on the list of priorities of many host countries and in some instances is under-reported if not ignored altogether by the media. This occurs particularly in situations where the economic circumstances of the host may create conflicts between refugees and locals arising out of the need to share limited resources.

In the particular instance of women the available research suggests that international law (governing the protection of women and children refugees) has gained even more limited traction in terms of on-the-ground application in several countries. A November 2017 Thompson Reuters Foundation News article titled “the international protection system is failing refugee women and girls” noted that, “law and policy developed over the past 30 years to address the protection needs of refugee women and girls are not working. They still suffer systematic rape and sexual abuse and lack access to many of the protection measures that should be available to all refugees. From travel documents in their own name to sanitary products, the needs of women and girls often get overlooked. Their voices are often silenced and their capacity ignored.”

If the issue of trafficking of girls and women in gold-bearing interior areas of Guyana has long been an issue of interest to the authorities in Guyana concerned with Trafficking in Persons (TIP), the current refugee situation arising out of the circumstances in neighbouring Venezuela and to which the Guyana Government has responded as best it can, raises different, more formidable challenges. Monitoring of the crossing of displaced Venezuelans is, to say the least, a near impossible task so that official assessments of the scale of the challenge is, in itself, difficult to determine. All of this has implications for arriving at a clear understanding of the extent of the crisis.

In circumstances where human trafficking has not, traditionally, been a front burner issue for the Guyanese authorities, the longstanding uncontrolled movement of people across our borders notwithstanding, matters pertaining to the treatment of arrivals from Venezuela pose unprecedented challenges for the authorities. Here, it is not just an issue of understanding international law pertaining to migration and the treatment of forced migrants, but also of developing a capacity, on the ground, to ensure the just and fair application of those laws in the protection of the ‘guest’ (again, perhaps, a misused word) population from the various forms of exploitation to which their circumstances render them vulnerable.

Part of Guyana’s obligation under international law is to guarantee the welfare and well-being of those migrants/refugees and if that guarantee can be extended to finding gainful and legitimate employment for some of them then so be it. Government needs, however, to also be mindful of its attendant responsibility to ensure that the country’s hosting of migrants/refugees does not unduly disrupt the lives of its own citizens. That, all too frequently, has been a serious challenge in some countries.

In the instance of Guyana this is a relatively new challenge and one which, truth be told, we are not ideally equipped to expedite effectively at this time. While there may be no lack of awareness of this reality at the level of our foreign policy practitioners, the current circumstances in Venezuela as well as the broader geo political reality of Guyana/Venezuela relations dictate that issues of migrants/refugees and their administration become a much closer domestic policy focus in the period ahead.

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