Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley.
Government of Trinidad and Tobago

A major row erupted in Trinidad this week over the deportation of a group of Venezuelan migrants including infant children but authorities say the country is under enough pressure from continued low oil prices, the COVID-19 pandemic, shuttered borders and now can’t be asked to cope with dozens of newly arriving refugees.

The flare up occurred after the group of more than 20 were put back on their boats and escorted out to the border Gulf of Paria stretch between Trinidad and the Venezuelan coast.

Several critics including opposition and rights officials and activists accused the Keith Rowley administration of heartlessly deporting the Venezuelans in their greatest hour of need but the prime minister has countered by saying that the island’s borders have been closed since March and no exceptions can be made for any group.

With just seven miles of gulf water separating the two nations, thousands of Venezuelans have in the past three years landed on Trinidadian beaches. Many have been registered officially and given status but authorities think there is more than enough evidence to support suspicions that there is a thriving and very active human smuggling ring in operation alongside the export of prostitutes, guns and drugs to the twin-island republic with Tobago.

Rowley’s critics say the deportations could have been managed more humanely given the fact that there were many women and infant children, most of whom returned to Trinidad at midweek, citing engine problems on their boats, providing new headaches for authorities.

It is believed that there are about 60,000 Venezuelans living in Trinidad alone and more than 30,000 in neighboring Guyana. These two CARICOM nations have borne the brunt of refugees fleeing economic and other hardships back home.

“Currently we have closed our borders even to our own citizens in this pandemic and would resist all efforts by others who are hell bent on forcing open our borders through illegal migration to every economic migrant, gun runner, human trafficker and South American gang leader. All they will be required to do is to make the seven-mile boat trip and claim to be refugees,” Rowley said in a statement.

He said the island is under attack from elements in the Organization of American States and the outgoing Trump Administration, angry with government for not supporting regime change in Venezuela.

He said these were “using nameless, faceless people armed with innocent children to try to force us to accept their understanding of refugee status and international treaties where a little island nation of 1.3 million people must be expected to maintain open borders to a next door neighbor of 34 million people even during a pandemic. 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,” he argued.

Authorities are also beginning to worry about the lingering effects of chain migration as many of those who have been given status in Trinidad have been trying to legally or illegally bring relatives to join them, swelling their numbers and putting social and other services under growing pressure to cope.

“Our policy has always been to protect its citizens and those here legally. The issues we are dealing with are illegal migration and breaching of the borders. Who decides that other persons can break our borders, illegally enter our borders and jeopardize our citizens?,” Security Minister Stuart Young asked.