“We are not China, we are not Russia, we are not America. We are a little island, limited space, 1.3 million people, and we will not allow UN spokespersons to convert us into a refugee camp,” the Prime Minister told reporters, after returning from his trip to the UK.
In Britain he lamented the hostile environment that led to the deportation of at least seven Trinidadians from that little island. But while he was away, a hostile environment on this island led to the deportation of 82 Venezuelans.
The narrative he used struck a chord with xenophobes in TT. But is that the audience he should be speaking for? The same audience Theresa May played to and who have left her floundering?
The Rowley rhetoric was bold, but its relevance was shaky.
The countries he listed – China, Russia, America – are superpowers. There are countries of smaller stature that are more appropriate comparisons, if we want to examine his claim that we are a nation of “generous and caring people…who have done so much to be friendly to our Venezuelan neighbours.”
Lebanon currently has a population of 6 million people, of which 2 million are refugees from Syria and 500,000 are long-term Palestinian refugees. More than a third of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees.
Physically, it is twice the size of TT (10,000 square kilometres versus 5,000). Which is to say, it is also a little country with limited space. To get close to Lebanon’s level of refugee hosting, Trinidad would need to take in 430,000 additional people. To account for our smaller land mass, halve that figure to 215,000.
At present we host just 2,000 registered refugees and an estimated 50,000 unregularised refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.
Does TT have the wealth that Lebanon has, to cope with our modest influx compared to its enormous one? According to the World Bank, we rank 33rd highest for GDP globally, while Lebanon is 79th.
What about our limited space? Let’s look at Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world (ranked 12th). Last year it took in 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. TT is the 53rd most densely populated country. Context is important.
Venezuelans in Trinidad are not living in refugee camps, nor anything remotely comparable. They stay with friends and family, rent apartments and put money into our economy. But phrases like “refugee camp” should not be lightly thrown. If the situation deteriorates further and more people flee Venezuela (there are currently 1.5 million Venezuelans living abroad, just three per cent of whom have come to Trinidad) then our government may indeed be called upon to provide shelter as part of its obligations to provide international protection under the Geneva Convention.
To precede any such possibility by framing it in negativity is unhelpful. There are refugee camps in Kenya, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, even France. None of the leaders of those countries, or the dozens more hosting exiled people around the world, have used such problematic language and posturing.
Uganda, currently hosting 1 million refugees from South Sudan and another 400,000 from other countries, operates a progressive model where refugees are given land on settlements to erect houses and grow crops. They are given the same rights and access to employment, education, public health and state benefits as Ugandan nationals.
In Brazil, hundreds of Venezuelan families who were sleeping in tents in a public square in Boa Vista have been transferred to a nearby refugee shelter, recently established by UNHCR. In Colombia, many are staying in hostels, assisted by NGOs and the local authorities. Both Brazil and Colombia are working with the UN and utilising its international funding, humanitarian partnerships and assistance to help them cope with the situation.
Across Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe, political leaders reach out to the UN for support in handling refugees. In the Middle East, for example, in 2018 alone, the UN has budgeted US$5.6 billion to support Syrians fleeing the ongoing conflict. The idea that countries are left to finance refugee crises themselves is wrong. If this government engaged more co-operatively with the same UN spokespersons who the PM berated, it might better comprehend the potential benefits for everybody involved.
The reality is that the vast majority of refugees around the world are hosted by developing countries like the ones I have mentioned, not by developed countries. Poor nations take the economic burden, and pressure on land and resources. TT is neither a developing nation nor a developed one, it is simply a small middle-income country that must do its part to share the burden.
It’s time to drop the bluster, work with the UN, adjust the narrative, legislate and implement the national refugee policy that was developed and agreed by both parties, and manage the situation before it becomes a crisis.