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Thursday 22 August 2019
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Commentary

Of migrants and refugees

COURTNEY MC NEISH

Part 1

I AM truly amazed as to how many intelligent, educated but clearly misinformed people continue the mismatching of the terms “migrants” and “refugees.” They are not the same. There is a clear distinction between the two.

According to the UNHCR, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence or to preserve their freedom.”

A migrant is described as any person who moves, usually across an international border, to join family members already abroad, to search for a better livelihood, to escape a natural disaster, or for a range of other purposes.

The receiving country to which refugees go in search of safe living has an obligation, once that country has signed on to international treaties and declarations, to provide international protection to these people, ensuring their basic rights are not infringed.

Once rightly deemed refugees, the next step is to process their applications as asylum-seekers with a view to granting legal resident status in the receiving country. They therefore cannot be easily deported.

Migrants on the other hand need not fear persecution and can return home at any time. They may even enjoy some form of protection by their own governments and, therefore, the receiving country has no special obligation towards their circumstance.

It is clear therefore that the vast majority of Venezuelans who have entered and continue to enter our country are merely economic migrants. This therefore begs the question as to why are so many Venezuelan migrants being awarded refugee status by the UNHCR office in Trinidad.

Further, what exactly is the Living Water Community’s role in actively assisting these migrants? Is it simply providing a loophole for these migrants to escape deportation?

The issue for most Venezuelans fleeing their country is economic hardship and not one of war or persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion as determined by the UN. They are simply looking for a better livelihood and to escape the harsh economic conditions that currently exist in their homeland.

Living Water is a religious-based (Roman Catholic), non-governmental, charitable organisation with many years of good standing. It has however been appointed by the UNHCR as its implementing partner in TT. As far as I have been able to ascertain, Living Water undertakes the reception of asylum seekers, assesses their claims and facilitates their registration with the UN High Commission.

My question therefore is if this is the best organisation suited for these highly responsible and sensitive tasks, which carry with them serious implications of international law.

I question the objectivity of people at Living Water as it is much easier for these religious-based assessors to be overly sympathetic when presented with overwhelming evidence of destitute living conditions and harsh economic circumstances being experienced by these asylum seekers.

These assessors are generally TT citizens and therefore should be guided by official government policy when determining refugee claims. To my surprise such a policy actually exists and was approved back in 2014 by the former government. Unfortunately, no domestic legislation has been passed in support of the policy.

So where can we look for some guidance? Although our government has not officially ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, it did in November 2000 accent to the 1951 convention and its related 1967 protocol. This in the view of most scholars of international law binds the government to uphold the requirements of these treaties and comply with their international obligations.

It has rolled out an initiative called the Migrant Registration Framework. I completely support this initiative, as it shows that the Government deems these people as economic migrants and not refugees. The very introduction of this process is itself evidence that this administration has deliberately ignored or nullified the refugee status of many Venezuelans as determined by the UN.

Whatever the case and implications for our international treaty obligations, registrants will now be able to access free emergency medical services and public health efforts. After six months their status will be assessed and a determination will be made on a case-by-case basis for their remaining period.

Registrants will therefore no longer be undocumented immigrants. What however remains unclear is the status of these people one year from now if they are still here, their registration expires and the situation in Venezuela remains unchanged. Even the FAQ on the official website does not adequately answer that question.

With this new status, what about the impact on and implications for our workplace society. This we will look at in Part 2.

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