THE SINKING of a vessel carrying 34 souls on board in the Gulf of Paria has distressing echoes of the experiences of boat people throughout history, whether Vietnamese fleeing the Vietnam War, Haitians clinging to rafts to reach the US, Syrians risking drowning to land in Europe, or Rohingya taking to the water to escape genocide in Myanmar. To this list we must add Venezuelans drowning in a 3,000 square-mile expanse of water that was once, all too fittingly, called Golfo Triste – Gulf of Sadness.
This unfolding tragedy underlines the humanitarian crisis at our doorstep, providing a startling measure of the extent of desperation engulfing our closest neighbour. There may well be finer questions of legal culpability, but at first glance the circumstances show a willingness on the part of a large group of people to take a huge risk. Venezuela is but 12 miles away, but the journey through the Dragon’s Mouth can be dangerous. We offer our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have perished.
The coast guard and law enforcement agencies must do all within their power regarding search efforts. Equally, the circumstances must be thoroughly reviewed in order to get a clear understanding of how this tragedy unfolded and to assess what steps can be taken to minimise the likelihood of recurrence.
It is for Venezuela to regulate the sea-worthiness of vessels in its jurisdiction, as well as to ensure they are being properly manned. At the same time, surveillance and interception by TT agencies are also pivotal. Unfortunately, this will not be the last time something like this happens.
The State’s decision to open a window of registration to regulate the process by which Venezuelans enter the country remains a laudable intervention. It encourages people to take steps to arrive through proper channels, thereby discouraging people from adopting risky strategies. There is already a surge, whether regulated or not, of Venezuelans seeking a better life. Whether the State needs to extend the remit of its policy to consider a specially-devised infrastructure designed to provide humanitarian assistance regarding vessels arriving here should be considered.
Widening the registration window beyond June 14 could also help prevent a last-minute rush, allowing a calmer, more controlled process in which panic is dissuaded. It is also worth considering which international humanitarian agencies could be encouraged to assist the process. Many such agencies have extensive experience in managing migration flows over a maritime environment.
The state of the Immigration Detention Centre needs to be properly ventilated and reviewed. While a report by a Parliament committee recently threw a spotlight on food served there, we agree with former Independent senator Dhanayshar Mahabir’s assessment that there are more pressing matters that need to be addressed.
As the boat disaster shows, those matters are matters of life and death.