“HE GORN dong de Main.” That’s what I would sometimes hear in my now remote childhood, referring to a man (it was always a man) who had left TT to find employment in Venezuela, on the South American mainland. (Has anyone ever written about that decades-long migration?)
These days, “de Main” is striking back, and TT is much agitated. Empathy with the Venezuelan arrivants contends with suspicion of them, if not outright hostility, particularly in our straitened economic circumstances.
Archbishop Jason Gordon calls the naysayers “stingy;” they in turn accuse him of selectivity of approach, and ask why he is not as vocal – or vocal at all – on the plight of detainees from Africa and Asia and the Caribbean. Where, they wonder, does Christian sentiment begin and end? Indeed, does it always begin?
David Abdulah recently wrote a lengthy article on the situation. Among other things, he made the crucial distinction between a refugee and an economic migrant. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (amended by a 1967 protocol) in part defines a refugee as a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” TT acceded to the convention only in November 2000.
Do the vast majority of Venezuelans who have entered TT in the last year or so fall in those categories? I don’t think so. Rather, these are people who are fleeing abysmal economic and social conditions, who don’t have jobs or food, and who want a better life for themselves; they are economic migrants. They’re flocking to any place where they think they can enhance the quality of their existence.
Of course, miscreants are among them: the gun and drug runners, the traffickers in human flesh etc. And those miscreants are guaranteed a warm welcome by their local counterparts, always willing to take advantage of deprivation and despair, and to make a fast, exploitative and illegal buck. Even a number of those sworn “to protect and serve” our society as a whole are now widely believed to be protecting criminals instead, and contentedly serving both the criminals and themselves.
But how is “migrant” officially defined? On its website, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says that “(m)igrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees, who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return.”
From what I’ve been hearing and reading, this definition would apply to the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans now leaving their country for other places, TT included. I therefore agree with the broad distinction drawn by Abdulah, and by Prime Minister Rowley, between the different types of Venezuelans in our midst. There is, however, another type. I’ve been noticing for quite a while now that a certain group of our neighbours, long resident in this country, has been politicising the issue, and in essence pulling us into the internal affairs of Venezuela, where (unless we are Caribbean Trumpeteers) we have no right to be.
Unbending opponents of the late Hugo Chavez, as they are of his successor, Nicolas Maduro, they seek to promote the view that Venezuelans self-deporting from their country are all political victims, hence entitled to apply for refugee status under the UN convention. Abdulah would be correct if he called this a “false narrative.”
It’s an unsteady moment for us: Christian charity, well-meant but seen as inconsistent of application; negative public perceptions; a wrongheaded conflation of “refugee” and “migrant,” and the possibility that our government, whatever its protestations, has not always demarcated a sufficiently clear line between the two; the desperate displaced, and villains on both sides of the water anxious to abuse them; the bile and manipulation of exiles; a necessary gas agreement which depends on Maduro’s sign-off, and which could send an unfortunate message to a temperamental leader we may not want to offend. We have to be careful.
There are other factors, of which I’ve seen no mention but which bear on the current debate. One is the effect of the November 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which was adopted by the Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama. It’s a non-binding document which focuses on a different geographic area from ours, but which nonetheless affects us.
I shall come to it next.