How a tiny island nation deals – or doesn’t – with 40,000 Venezuelans

Why We Wrote This

Signing an international agreement can seem like a solution in itself: case closed, mission accomplished. But it’s up to each country to actually implement those agreements. What happens if they don’t?

Mimi Yagoub
Police watch a group of Trinidadians and Tobagonians protest against further migration in front of the registration center for Venezuelans seeking work permits, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in June 2019.

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Some 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, searching for safety and stability. Where do they go? 

Many choose neighboring countries like Colombia or Brazil. But just a few miles from the Venezuelan coast is another country you may not have remembered: Trinidad and Tobago.

The Caribbean nation of just 1.4 million has absorbed more Venezuelans per capita than nearly any other country. And it’s been home to some of the strongest pushback against the Venezuelan exodus – in part because, unlike many host countries, Trinidad and Tobago does not have a refugee law.

The country is party to international law on asylum-seekers, but has never passed a national law about them, and often treats the newcomers as illegal migrants. It’s a reminder of the disconnect asylum-seekers can face between international protections in theory, and in practice – particularly in such a tiny country, which argues it simply doesn’t have capacity to deal with such an influx.

There is “no supranational authority with the power … to enforce international law,” says Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International. “International law is an imperfect instrument.”

“González, Rodríguez, Ospina!” Staff call out names at Trinidad’s main airport, as Venezuelans shuffle through to pick up tickets to the neighboring island of Tobago. But they’re not going for the beaches. They’re hoping to register for a special permit that will allow them to work legally here, and finally take them out of a high-stakes limbo.

A Caribbean nation of just 1.4 million, Trinidad and Tobago has struggled to deal with the influx of people from Venezuela, whose coast is just a few miles away. Some 40,000 have entered the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) – a drop in the bucket of the 4 million Venezuelans who have left in recent years.

Most have fled to nearby countries that have condemned Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime. Many nearby countries are trying to accommodate Venezuelans, though conditions are often difficult. Most, too, are Spanish-speaking countries that share cultural roots with Venezuela.

But it’s tiny English-speaking Trinidad and Tobago – whose citizens are the descendants of native communities, indentured servants from Asia, enslaved Africans, and European settlers – that has taken in more Venezuelans per capita than almost any other country. 

And it’s Trinidad and Tobago that has been home to some of the strongest pushback. The islands simply do not have the capacity to deal with huge waves of migrants, Prime Minister Keith Rowley has said on numerous occasions.

But the lack of welcome has a deeper root. Unlike many host countries, this island country lacks a refugee law. It often treats the newcomers as illegal migrants, despite being party to international law on refugees. It’s a reminder of the disconnect asylum-seekers can face between international protections in theory, and in practice – particularly in such a small country.

“This little island cannot be the solution to … hundreds of thousands of migrants leaving Venezuela,” Mr. Rowley told reporters in May. International agencies “will not encourage us into converting Trinidad and Tobago, this little island state ... into any refugee camp for the larger Venezuelan public.”

Window of opportunity

In June, the government offered Venezuelans a two-week window to report to authorities in return for a temporary work permit – a somewhat positive but short-term step, advocates say, toward recognizing their international rights. Thousands flocked to Trinidad’s cities to register, and others tried unsuccessfully to avoid the crowds in smaller Tobago. Some locals handed out hot meals, while others stared in disbelief at hundreds of applicants lining up or napping along the sides of the road, baking under the hot sun.

Erika Rodríguez, waiting in line in Tobago, said she has been working informally for months, but still says a short prayer every morning before leaving the house: “God, lead the way and I will follow.” Every month, she sends money back to her two children in Venezuela.

Mimi Yagoub
Venezuelans sit under a tent as they wait to register for a 1-year work permit in Scarborough, Tobago. The government of Trinidad and Tobago allowed Venezuelans who have fled the country's crises to register during a two-week period.

Ms. Rodríguez’s story is similar to that of many Venezuelans who arrive illegally, or enter legally and overstay their visitor’s permit of 90 days. Because the Trinidad and Tobago government has no system to grant refugee status, and obtaining a work permit is difficult, thousands of Venezuelans seek asylum through the UNHCR and partner organizations upon arrival, but still are at risk of arrest and deportation.

Venezuelans who applied for the work permit in June will be allowed to work for up to one year, barring those with serious criminal history. But after that year, migrants fear, they will return to limbo.

“It’s a pleasant way of kicking people out,” says Derrick López, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker who arrived illegally last year and spent five months in detention, then paid a fine to be released. (He spoke on condition of using a pseudonym.) 

On June 14, the final day of registration, the last people trickled into the center in the capital, Port of Spain. Then the gates shut, and the grace period was over. From now on, Venezuelans without permits – including those who have applied for asylum – will “be treated like any other illegal immigrant in Trinidad and Tobago,” and subject to deportation, says Police Commissioner Gary Griffith. 

In total, over 16,500 Venezuelans registered, fewer than half of those believed to have entered the country. On July 23, Mr. Rowley reiterated that unregistered Venezuelans should be deported.

Cracks in the system

Trinidad and Tobago is party to the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees and related agreements, which protect asylum-seekers and refugees from being detained for illegal entry, deported back to the country they fled, or denied a right to work or basic services. In May, the UNHCR issued guidelines emphasizing that “the majority of Venezuelans fleeing the country are in need of international protection,” says Liz Throssell, UNHCR global spokesperson for the Americas and Europe. “Accordingly, we are emphasizing the need for states to accord legal status, preferably by way of refugee status determination.”

But Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t have its own national laws about refugees, unlike many host countries for Venezuelans. That means little capacity to comply with these international agreements – and it’s created a dangerous gray zone where many of asylum-seekers’ rights have been violated, refugee advocates say.

There is “no supranational authority with the power … to enforce international law,” says Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International. “International law is an imperfect instrument.”

Trinidad and Tobago is not unique in shirking its commitments, he adds. Indeed, several other nations party to international refugee conventions, including Mexico, and Turkey, have been accused of deporting people in need of protection.

As of November, there were approximately 440 people “known to be in need of international protection” in detention in Trinidad and Tobago, according to a report from Refugees International; most of them were Venezuelan.

Mr. López says he was detained while he had his asylum-seeker papers on him. While inside the immigration detention center, he says access to lawyers was restricted, and meals and water were insufficient – the type of claims echoed in a recent parliamentary inquiry. Mr. López's 14-year-old child was also detained, separately.

Asylum-seekers caught without valid migratory status typically end up in court, then sentenced or fined up to 20,000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (around $3,000). Some police officers have allegedly disregarded asylum-seeker status, even destroying the relevant documents provided by the UNHCR. 

Other asylum-seekers are deported. In April 2018, 82 Venezuelans were flown back to their country. As many as 25 were registered asylum-seekers, according to Carlos Valero, a legislator in Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Authorities have emphasized that Trinidad and Tobago has not yet ratified international agreements about refugees by passing national laws.

“We do not see refugees in those who we invited to register [for work permits], we see economic migrants, people who leave Venezuela because of their economic [situation],” explains Fitzgerald Hinds, a member of Parliament and minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs.

But lack of a national law does not exempt Trinidad and Tobago from international law, advocates say.

The government has “international commitments that they must respect,” says Karla Henríquez, a human rights lawyer from Venezuela who works closely with asylum-seekers in Trinidad and Tobago.

More stable future?

Beyond the government, there is popular pressure not to welcome Venezuelans. “Close our borders!” dozens of Trinidadians cried last month, at the island’s first protest against migration.

“How are you helping migrants by inviting them into a country without jobs?” said organizer Kia Hosein.

But authorities are considering some legal framework to protect refugees, Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews told a parliamentary committee this year, acknowledging that asylum-seekers “are really in limbo at all times.”

Some argue that greater international pressure is needed to move that along. The UNHCR has protested the islands’ treatment of Venezuelans, issuing a statement that condemned the April 2018 deportations as a breach of international law. But overall, it “has been treading gingerly,” says Nafeesa Mohammed, a former legal consultant to Trinidad and Tobago’s government who has worked on refugee issues. 

But she hopes that someday the newcomers will energize the islands’ economy and culture. “Diversity has always been our strength,” she says. 

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