Former IIR Head: Accept Venezuelans, but have a plan

Former director of the Institute of International Relations (IIR) at the University of the West Indies' St Augustine campus, Andy Knight, is supporting  Government's decision to provide refuge to Venezuelan migrants who are fleeing the deteriorating conditions in their country. However, he is also advising that this should not be done in an ad-hoc manner to avoid any future complications.

In an interview with Guardian Media, Knight, who is currently the professor of IIR at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, argued that the proposed two-week registration process needed to be thought through carefully before it was introduced, as he foresees this can incur some major challenges.

For starters, Knight believes the allotted two-week period was unrealistic and insufficient time for “things to run smoothly.” The registration exercise, which began on May 31, 2019, will end on June, 14, but already, Venezuelans who have not had the chance to register are appealing to the Government to extend the deadline.

“If there are indeed over 60,000 Venezuelan refugees now present in Trinidad and Tobago, then a two-week registration period is much too short,” Knight said.

He said with the talks between representatives of Venezuela's self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó and the incumbent Nicolás Maduro regime having reached a standstill in Norway last month, after it became apparent Maduro would not step down, there is no end in sight for the economic and social crisis that has gripped the country. As such, Knight said T&T should be prepared for an even greater influx, a reality he believes Government has not fully grasped. 

Knight said having a one-year amnesty for those who entered T&T illegally may also not be sufficient. He said as long as there is a risk to life for migrants and asylum seekers, international law (to which the Government of T&T is a signatory) prohibits the forcible return of those individuals to Venezuela. He said there were several questions about what Government would do with Venezuelan migrants once the year has passed.

Knight said Government may have bitten off more than it could chew and may have possibly even opened a “can of worms” it may not be able to put a lid back on because of improper planning.

“There is no question that Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of 1.369 million and a landmass of 5,131 km, is completely overwhelmed by its close neighbour Venezuela with its population of 31.98 million and a landmass of 916,455 km. Trinidad and Tobago cannot afford to host many more Venezuelan migrants without placing enormous strain on its economy and social safety net,” Knight said.

He referred to what happened in Ghana when their government first established a refugee camp in 1990 to accommodate refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone fleeing the civil conflicts in those countries.

He said by 2011 when the same UNHCR refugee camp in Ghana was closed, while many refugees returned to their respective countries others decided to stay. 

“So it is true that once refugee camps are established it is difficult to get rid of them,” Knight warned.

However, Knight also argued that while the T&T has Government offered the amnesty, it cannot open its doors to migrants and not be prepared to facilitate obvious basic human rights. In this instance he said education cannot be denied to migrant children, as this goes against the tenets of international law.

“According to both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Refugee Convention, all signatories to these international legal documents must guarantee the right to education for those fleeing countries where their lives are at risk. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also enshrines the right to education for all children, including those who are displaced,” Knight underscored.

“T&T must have a plan or it can face serious complications down the road.”

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley last month, Amnesty International said in line with T&T's own Refugee Policy 14, it would be only right that the country facilitates Venezuelan and other refugee children with access to public school. The body said this in the context of the fact that the amnesty programme did not speak to the education on Venezuelan migrant children. But when Guardian Media spoke to Education Minister Anthony Garcia on the issue then, he said the Government's position was that it cannot guarantee public education to Venezuelan children.

 - by Bobie-Lee Dixon

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