Sometimes, life can be made easier by trying to see the opportunities in what gets thrown at us, but too often we have our heads so deep in the trenches that we cannot recognise a gift horse, even when it is jumping up and down on our backs. The unplanned arrival of Venezuelans into TT is one such example of a potentially missed opportunity.
The social, economic and even political impact of neighbours turning up uninvited while we are unprepared for them is not to be underestimated, but it is what we have and how we deal with it marks us out as people and as a state. Our experience is not singular. Yet again, TT proves it is not peripheral to world events. According to the UN, in June 2018 there were 68.5 million displaced people on the globe, meaning they have left their homes or country through war, famine, social upheaval, foreign occupation, persecution – because of race, religion, politics, ethnicity, and for other similar sorts of reasons. That is not a small number of people, and it takes on even more significance when you consider that every two seconds someone gets displaced somewhere. Of those, 25.4 million are refugees (those forced to leave) and 3.4million are asylum seekers (those seeking protection elsewhere). Given that most parts of the Americas are experiencing a current massive movement of people, it is to be expected that we would be affected by this unhappy phenomenon.
We think of human occupation as fixed, but mankind has been perpetually on the move since we migrated out of Africa, as a species, and populated almost every quarter of the planet in the ensuing 60,000-70,000 years. It was not so long ago, 1790s, that Trinidad and Venezuela belonged to the same Spanish empire and came under the same rule. Maybe we need to think about who we are and remember how we all got here, from Europe, Africa and Asia, directly and via other islands. Even our indigenous peoples, whom we loosely call Arawaks and Caribs, came from somewhere else. The population of the Caribbean started with various linguistic and ethnic groups in South America migrating across from the mainland to Trinidad, and from here up the island chain. West Indians have always travelled in the region and North America to find work, we to Venezuela and Panama in the past, and huge numbers of people living here are themselves from neighbouring small islands or descended from those who arrived here just one or two generations ago, now they are Trinis. It may be useful to consider these facts in order to give context to this new wave of people. It might help in determining what language we use to describe the unfortunate people who urgently seek shelter and protection.
The Caribbean, and particularly TT, is a success story with regard to how we have managed to integrate with one another, living side and side, intermarrying, developing rich and unique cultural forms and linguistic patterns. But none of this is guaranteed if we mismanage the current situation. We should bear in mind, too, that we have not been told how many Cuban, Chinese, Syrian, Haitian and other refugees or migrants live here and if they have been officially processed or not. Estimates put the total figure at several thousands. We are ignorant of how they live, unless we hear or read about yet another case of exploitation and violence.
Catering for refugees and asylum-seekers could be burdensome and we must begin by knowing the correct figures. Is the number of new Venezuelan arrivals 30,000-60,000, which is the unofficial estimated number, or is it the 28,000 the Ministry of National Security expects to register over these two weeks? The numbers matter because it determines what provision we make and how we ensure that large numbers of people do not disappear into the ever-deepening sub-culture of disadvantaged people.
It is an established fact that new arrivals in a country need special help, especially when they are not linguistically proficient. It is a well-known fact too that, for the most part, people who have the gumption to move country, even under duress, possess the potential to benefit the receiving country. The losers are the countries they abandon. With that in mind there are parts of the process of handling the arrivals that are unclear. Topping the list are the refugee children who are not allowed to attend state schools. I imagine that once they are registered that will change, but will we provide the necessary extra language and transition classes to enable them to benefit from the schooling offered? The questions are innumerable but if we get it right we could turn what seems a problem into an advantage. Discouraging the language of division and scaremongering is a key element in that.