By unofficial estimates, there approximately 40,000 Venezuelans currently living in T&T and they will be able to register with the National Security Ministry through the Immigration Division to work here for a period of one year under a new amnesty arrangement.
Each individual registered will be issued an identification card and during the time they are working here legally, they will be entitled to benefits and will be included in the Board of Inland Revenue’s (BIR) Pay As You Earn (PAYE) system.
A verification exercise will be carried out to ensure that only Venezuelan nationals are registered.
This process, which will take place over a two-week period, is separate from the system already in place for those seeking asylum or refugee status.
However, among the Venezuelan community in T&T, there is some discomfort and uncertainty over having to go through yet another registration process. Among those expressing concern is local activist Sofia Figueroa-Leon, vice-president of the NGO Caribbean Kids and Families Therapy Organisation.
“The Venezuelan community is quite taken aback because they register with the Living Water Community and once you do, there is a registry there. From there, Living Water will give you an appointment to go and register with the UNHCR so that’s another registry. And as a refugee, you have to give up your passport and it is lodged at the Immigration Division,” she said.
“Why is it that you are creating a fourth registration for?”
Figueroa-Leon added: “It is not clear what will happen after that first year as we have many people calling us and asking what will happen after the year is up.”
She said officials of the Ministry of National Security has so far been able to provide answers, so refugees are fearful of being sent back to Venezuela.
“Most of them come here fleeing the situation and looking to build their lives at least, so they can eat daily. They are not looking for anyone to give them housing or take them in. They just want the opportunity to do it for themselves,” she said.
Figueroa-Leon said she is [particularly concerned about the children of Venezuelans win T&T.
“They are not getting an education right now. What will happen if these families can’t go anywhere else or return to Venezuela and decide to make this their home? Are we going to have a whole bunch of illiterate, ignorant people in the next ten years?” she asked.
“If we change our outlook now, we can take advantage of the kinds of people who are coming here as we have doctors, nurses, musicians, architects…we can employ them.”
According to Figueroa-Leon, the situation for most asylum seekers is dire and there are many instances were university educated Venezuelans as forced to accept low-paying jobs as house-cleaners, bartenders and even packing grocery shelves.
Figueroa-Leon said during a visit to Tobago for Carnival she was surprised at how many of her countrymen were selling water, soft-drinks and Spanish delicacies on the roadside to make a living.
She stressed: “They are not asking anyone for hand-outs, they are just trying to earn an honest living.”
Current figures on the number of Venezuelan refugees in T&T is not available but in March 2018, the United Nations High Commis-
sioner for Refugees (UNHCR)reported a 2,000 per cent increase in the number of Venezuelan nationals who had sought asylum worldwide since 2014, particularly in the Americas. According to the UNHCR, up to January 31, there were 8,861 Venezuelans in T&T.
More than 94,000 Venezuelans were able to access refugee procedures in other countries in 2017, the UNHCR said but pointed out: “Many more of those in need of protection opt for other legal stay arrangements that may be faster to obtain and provide the right to work, access to health and education.”
The UNHCR has released guidelines for governments to deal with people in need of international protection and humanitarian assistance and has encouraged states to ensure Venezuelans have access to territory and refugee procedures.
The agency has also urged governments to adopt pragmatic protection-oriented responses to the Venezuelan people and suggested alternative legal stay arrangements, including visas or temporary residence permits, as well as regularization programmes guaranteeing access to healthcare, education, family unity, freedom of movement, shelter and the right to work.
An official of the Immigration Division, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were about 1,500 refugees and asylum seekers registered in T&T and 13,000 Venezuelans had been referred to the UNHCR. The division receives between 250 and 300 applications per week.
While an asylum application is being processed by the Immigration Division, an Order of Supervision is issued which allows the applicant to move freely but which requires that they report to the Immigration Division once a month.
However, fearful that they would be detained and deported, many Venezuelans were not reporting as they should and this is a major problem, the official said.
Latin America has some of the world’s most progressive refugee arrangements such as the Cartagena Declaration of 1984, which is built on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and embodies a wider refugee definition. The UNHCR considers that the broad circumstances leading to the outflow of Venezuelan nationals would fall within the spirit of the Cartagena Declaration.
The Cartagena Declaration is a non-binding regional instrument for the protection of refugees. It was adopted by delegates from ten Latin-American countries, including Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela and has been incorporated into the national laws and state practices of 14 countries.
Its provisions include:
• Protection of and assistance to refugees, particularly in the areas of health, education, labour and safety.
• Establishment of programmes and projects to ensure the self-sufficiency of refugees
• Training of officials responsible for the protection of and assistance to refugees, with the co-operation of UNHCR and other international agencies.
• Ensuring that receiving countries facilitate, in coordination with UNHCR, the departure procedure for refugees in instances of voluntary and individual repatriation.
• Institution of appropriate measures in receiving countries to prevent the participation of refugees in activities directed against the country of origin, while at all times respecting the human rights of the refugees.