Row over migrants as PM rants at OAS, US

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley -
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley -

THE VENEZUELAN migrant crisis reached boiling point on Wednesday after the Prime Minister accused the Organization of American States (OAS) of "triggering and fuelling" the influx of migrants here and even boldly stated that "these public officials have virtually declared war on Trinidad and Tobago," for refusing to join the United States "in forcing violent regime change" in the South American country.

Dr Rowley bolted from the stable as early as 7 am on Wednesday, after a statement attributed to him was posted on the Office of the Prime Minister's official Facebook page, and later e-mailed to newsrooms. It identified OAS President Luis Almargo of being "misguided" and "almost single-handedly" fuelling the crisis because of TT not joining US special envoy for Iran and Venezuela Elliot Abrams and US President Donald Trump in forcing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro out of office.

US Ambassador to TT Joseph Mondello, in response, deflected criticism by the Prime Minister over the Venezuelan migrant crisis, shifting blame to the Maduro regime.

Mondello, in a statement, said neither the current leadership of the OAS nor Trump could be blamed for the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Rather, he said, the Maduro government is responsible for the near-collapse of that country's economy and grave human rights violations against its people. Millions of Venezuelans have fled over the last six years, seeking refuge in Colombia, Nicaragua, Brazil, other South American countries and TT.

Mondello referred to a UN fact-finding mission in 2014, before Trump or the current leadership of the OAS took office, which found "grave human rights violations and crimes in violation of international law, including extra-judicial executions, torture, arbitrary detentions, and excessive use of force."

The ambassador said the Venezuelan economy "was in free-fall" long before the US began to impose sanctions in August 2017 and again blamed the Maduro regime for "millions of Venezuelans living in dire economic conditions” fleeing their homes since he assumed power.

Local law-enforcement authorities have been documenting significant numbers of migrants arriving on beaches in southwestern Trinidad over the last three years. In May 2019, in response to the influx of Venezuelans, the government allowed both legal and illegal migrants to register to live and work in TT.

A total of 16,523 were processed now stand to benefit from permanent residency in TT, according to a second statement by the Prime Minister on Wednesday.


Rowley lashed out at his critics, including Opposition MP Dr Roodal Moonilal, who described the PM's initial statement as being too angry and condemnatory. For this, Rowley described Moonilal as an "opportunistic carbuncle."

Rowley said, "If we appear to be a 'soft-touch flexible-border neighbour,' this country would be overrun by tens of thousands of illegal migrants in a jiffy." Pointing directly at Moonilal, the PM said: "The fact is that as you and others decry and bemoan our own circumstances here, our life and living opportunities are still very attractive to many Venezuelans and others.

Moonilal, in a WhatsApp response, said it appeared the Prime Minister was a having "a public meltdown" over his "mindless defence of (National Security Minister) Stuart Young who on Tuesday defended the police and Coast Guard for escorting 27 people, including 16 children, back across the international border in two pirogues, after they landed illegally on November 17, and tried to block their deportation through the High Courts.

"Rowley can hurl insults at me – that will not intimidate me. He used the official government websites to insult opposition members...I will not be silenced, I call for the immediate resignation of Minister Young," Moonilal stated.

In his initial statement, couched in unusually undiplomatic language, the PM wrote: "TT is currently under the latest assault, using nameless, faceless people armed with innocent children, to try and force us to accept their understanding of 'refugee status and international treaty' where a little island nation of 1.3 million people must be expected to maintain open borders to a next-door neighbour of 34 million people even during a pandemic. This is a matter not for the OAS but for the people of TT.”

Rowley pointed out that TT's borders were closed on March 22 as one of the more stringent measures to limit this country's exposure to the pandemic and said the national security agencies "would resist all efforts by others hell-bent on forcing open our borders through illegal immigration."

His public comments follow TT's refusal of a group of Venezuelans including 16 children, on November 17, followed by the Coast Guard’s escorting them back to Venezuelan waters in the Gulf of Paria. The group returned to Los Iros, Erin on Tuesday while Young was hosting a media briefing to defend that decision. They were arrested again and Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams heard a fresh case filed by the group on Wednesday night.


The incident involving the children sparked international outrage over the treatment of minors and even made international news.

Rowley said if left unchecked, under the rubric of humanitarian interpretation, illegal immigrants "will effectively prise open our borders to every economic migrant, gun runner, drug dealer, human trafficker and South American gang leader/members."

All they will be required to do is make the seven-mile boat trip and claim to be refugees, he said. "We staunchly support the work of the United Nations but this threat and the persistent disregard for the outstanding humanitarian efforts extended by the people of TT, do not conform with the spirit and purpose of the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency).”

Rowley appeared to suggest TT had done all it could. “It is our little island nation which facilitated the registration of 16,000 Venezuelan migrants and even as we ourselves are struggling to cope with our own difficulties we have afforded them comfort, aid and opportunity," the statement said.

If after all of that "our nation's image is to be tarnished through the facilitation of illegal penetration or our borders then certainly, that will be the unkindest cut of all."
He called on citizens to continue to be humane to Venezuelan migrants and not demonise them.

The Prime Minister accused the UNHCR of exploiting the migrant crisis "to inflate and sustain their own operational budgets" as he dismissed their estimate of 60,000 Venezuelans living in TT.

He said those who have benefited from the registration process do not have the right to "import all their families and trafficked customers into TT," since all Venezuelans seeking to enter the country must obtain a visa. That requirement went into effect at the close of the registration process last June.

"Clearly it will not be acceptable for them to remain as people at the margins of our society, eking out a living with children not able to be properly schooled or even being born here as new citizens of TT," Rowley said, offering a glimpse of how Cabinet will handle the expiration of their work permits on December 31.

He said the "wholesale deportation of forced repatriation" was not a feasible option. "It is against this background that protection of all persons within our borders need to have their present and future circumstances protected by our suite of laws enacted specifically for this purpose," he said.


"Row over migrants as PM rants at OAS, US"

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