It was a hot and sunny Tuesday afternoon six years ago when Roy landed at the Piarco International Airport, uncertain about what would happen next. What he knew was that he had to get away.
When he left Venezuela on board a chartered Venezolana aircraft on November 14 that year, he had US$450 in his pocket and a dream worth millions in his heart.
After openly criticising his government and what he considered to be corrupt practices at his workplace, the young Venezuelan student was sure the only choice he had was either to stand and face political persecution or flee.
When he arrived in Trinidad, Roy enrolled as an English student at the Comprehensive English Centre near Arouca to assist with his communication skills. He was lucky enough to get financial help from his Trinidadian family, whom he barely knew but whom he’d met once before when he was six.
Maybe it was luck or fate, but the day Roy arrived in Trinidad & Tobago, he met another Venezuelan, Marlys, who had been in the immigration line. She would eventually become his wife. And so, he started the journey of what would blossom into Lemon Heart Jewellery & Accessories.
Self-employment prospects through business enterprise have provided a route out of what some refugees and migrants describe as an emerging environment of hopelessness.
The additional perception of not being welcomed by locals has not helped but has not prevented many from exploring entrepreneurial avenues that provide independent means of income generation.
Chaguanas has proven to accept territory with employment prospects and client bases for business development in various pursuits.
In the heart of the central borough, for example, at the corner of Chaguanas Main Road and Busy Corner is the Busy Corner Mall – a bustling and vibrant area crowded with stores, vendors, taxi stands, and a consistent stream of people looking for deals.
Inside the mall, you will find the Spanish Salon, where six Venezuelans and a Colombian migrant have come together to operate a beauty salon. In that facility, there are two nail technicians and four hairdressers. Business appears to be booming.
Daniela boasts that 75 percent of her clients are Trinidadians, for which she is very grateful. But her journey to financial freedom wasn’t a smooth one. She shares what it’s been like and some of her challenges.
Daniela has two sons who are dual citizens of T&T and Venezuela. Fortunately for her, their status allowed them to access primary and secondary education only after they learned English.
Daniela’s older son recently passed his Secondary Entrance Assessment exam and got accepted to Queens Royal College and will embark on that journey in September. She said she worked at various jobs so that she could provide for them. Her son’s accomplishment, she declares, is an incredibly proud moment for her.
Since coming to T&T in 2017, Daniela became a single parent after divorcing her husband. Now, she works for herself at the salon and plans to open her facility by the end of the year.
Obliquely opposite the salon is the clothing store, ‘Marle’, run by 23-year-old Jeancarlo Soto Ramirez.
His first day in the country, six years ago, ended in a road accident that almost took his life. Today, he is operating the store with his wife Marle.
Jeancarlo says he loves his new country and has no plans of returning to Venezuela anytime soon.
Not far away, at the Express Car Wash on Endeavour Road, Venezuelan workers are known for their speed and thoroughness. On Rodney Road, you’ll find Club Kairo, managed by Venezuelans and offering evening belly dancing classes.
While they still face obstacles to healthcare and accessing jobs in their fields of qualification, a July decision by the Ministry of Education means Venezuelan children are now eligible to access education in the public schooling system. For some, it’s the first time they will see inside a classroom in over four years. Many, for the very first time.
Dr Roger Hosein, an economist who supports the integration of refugees and migrants, believes the country should find ways to benefit from Venezuelan labour to boost agriculture and the services sector. Dr Hosein argues that should the Venezuelans return to their country it would hurt the economy.
He said more data is needed on the community, but “it remains tough when we are not sure of the number of Venezuelans registered in relation to the number who are not.”
For Roy and Marlys, the pandemic has been both a curse and a blessing. It forced them to start their own business when the country was under lockdown, and they had no money to pay their bills.
They started their online jewellery store selling custom-made pieces to anyone who dared to buy. Now, they take orders for events such as parties and weddings but also participate in pop-up shops at malls across the country.
Despite the success in growing the business, Roy believes there are opportunities that he can’t access because he’s a refugee.
But he speaks highly of the Living Water Community (LWC) and the assistance the organisation has been providing to him over the years. Even now, Roy is a team lead on a project assisting other refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers to integrate into Trinidad and Tobago society.
It has, however, not been smooth sailing for these entrepreneurs and thousands of others interested in building a future for themselves and their families in T&T.
Since the advent of the pandemic in 2020, authorities have deported hundreds of Venezuelans. Some have however returned to Venezuela voluntarily, citing the rising cost of living in T&T, their inability to send their children to school, and the uncertainty of their legal status.
“I’m not safe, even now, I don’t feel safe,” Roy said. Roy and his wife participated in the 2019 registration exercise, which extended a right to stay and work. Still, he now realises that there aren’t any immigration laws or refugee and asylum seeker policies to protect him.
The Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants (R4V), led by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) suggests there are 34,100 Venezuelans in T&T with more than 30,000 registered as refugees and asylum seekers.
Most Venezuelans interviewed for this story say they do not see themselves as asylum-seekers or refugees and would happily return home if the Venezuelan economy wasn’t in shambles.
Globally, the movement of displaced people across regional and international borders continues unabated in 2023, and the host countries aren’t always very welcoming.
“People were more open to migrants at that time (when I first arrived in 2017) because we were coming with our U.S dollars. They were more friendly at that time,” said Roy.
“People see us now as, I wouldn’t call it say, a slave, but they see the opportunity for cheap labour to help the country, but we damage ourselves. Sometimes I’d have to work for 24 hours, but I get paid for eight hours alone,” he said.
“I’d like to see the migrant society and Trinidad & Tobago society come together.”
“We have dentists, nurses, doctors, we have teachers. And I see this government struggling because they say we short of doctors; we short of teachers.”
“Every day you go to the hospital, you spend the entire day to be attended to. So why the government doesn’t open a programme for any migrant who qualifies to become part of the society?” Roy asked passionately.
He said it’s all about opportunities, and whatever he can do for the country, he should be allowed to do it. Shortly after arriving in the country, Roy, an IT specialist, sought employment at the country’s main telecoms operator, TSTT, but was told he’s overqualified.
He shared how he was fired from a job because he was doing too much work, which made the other workers look bad. His co-workers even told him to slow his pace and stop ‘showing them up’.
Roy’s sentiment was echoed by Anglican priest, Jesus Latan, who believes that a more optimistic perception towards refugees and migrants would create opportunities for the Caribbean and Latin America to be more integrated.
“Give the Venezuelans an opportunity to teach Spanish; check their documents and make sure everything is alright then bring them into all the schools in Trinidad & Tobago,” exclaimed Latan.
The Anglican clergyman explains that tracking the number of refugees and migrants is easier said than done. He said the Anglican church’s efforts to create a database on the refugees and migrants has been extremely difficult.
He said that in the last two years efforts to get information from refugees and migrants about who they are and what they do have not yielded much success.
“The database may create expectations for jobs because I can send the information to the churches and tell the people we have two Venezuelans, two drivers, three who are mechanics … and so on. But I’m not getting through with them no matter how often I try,” he said.
“And I believe it’s because they’re afraid of immigration, I believe that.”
“They do not tell you anything but because you work with them and you see them all the time, you may have the perception that they take care of themselves,” he said.
“It is difficult to say which one is migrant and which one is refugee because, at the end of the day, it all will depend on how they develop their lives in the country,” he added.
“When you speak with them, they’re moving from Venezuela to get a better life, that is what they say” ‘But I don’t ask them why they flee from Venezuela to here.”
Latan said some of them move on to other countries if given the opportunity.
Based on what the Anglican Chaplaincy has gathered, there are approximately 6,000 Venezuelans in Chaguanas, and the church has helped over 460 migrants in the year since the Chaplaincy started.
Latan is of the view that regardless of the xenophobia in some quarters, the language barrier, and the uncertainty of their immigration status, Venezuelans are building families, communities, businesses and positively contributing to the development of the country.
The Venezuela Situation and the T&T Scenario
Described by the UNHCR as the world’s second largest refugee crisis, over seven million Venezuelans have fled their country trying to escape the political and economic turmoil that has plagued the country since 2014.
In their country, many Venezuelans are unable to access clean drinking water, there are severe food and gas shortages, and access to medical supplies and treatment is severely compromised. With inflation exceeding 2000 percent, 90 percent of Venezuelans are said to be living in poverty. Economic sanctions imposed by some developed countries and political unrest have fueled an already raging fire.
Venezuela and T&T share a long history of population movements. There are longstanding trading routes for a variety of goods and livestock. There is also the stark reality of the illegal trade in drugs, guns, and ammunition, as well as the scourge of human trafficking.
T&T became a popular destination of choice when the unprecedented exodus out of Venezuela began as political and economic strife took root. Many chose to risk their lives undertaking dangerous sea journeys in overcrowded dinghies or boats without life vests and other safety equipment.
A high number of them entered the country as undocumented travellers. Passports, birth certificates and other official documents were often absent.
Costs and Benefits
“These alarming figures highlight the urgent need to support host communities in the receiving countries,” added Eduardo Stein, joint UNHCR-IOM Special Representative for Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
“Latin American and Caribbean countries are doing their part to respond to this unprecedented crisis, but they cannot be expected to continue doing it without international help.”
Nevertheless, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has argued in favour of the net benefit of migration.
The integration process has been far from smooth in T&T. For example, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley once accused the Organization of American States (OAS) of “triggering and fuelling” the rapid inflow of migrants into the country as a result of T&T not joining the United States “in forcing violent regime change in Venezuela.”
“T&T is currently under the latest assault, using nameless, faceless people armed with innocent children, to try and force us to accept ‘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,” Dr Rowley said.
“This is a matter not for the OAS but for the people of T&T,” he said in 2020.
By that time, and in recognition of the potential negative impact of the growing inflow of undocumented Venezuelan migrants, the government introduced a registration exercise in May of 2019, involving where 16,523 Venezuelans who benefitted from the programme.
The government’s efforts are being supported by organisations such as UNHCR, together with its partners, Living Water Community – an organization operated by the Catholic church, the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago, the Rape Crisis Society, the Pan American Development Foundation, La Casita Hispanic Cultural Centre as well as other UN Agencies including IOM and UNICEF.
The Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) of the Living Water Community been registering asylum seekers and refugees and is key in helping them access food, shelter, clothing, education, and jobs.
The Anglican church is also very instrumental in keeping an eye on the welfare of the refugees and migrants through its Chaplaincy of Migrants department run by Latan.
Working closely with the UN, the religious institution provides food, shelter, clothing, jobs, education, and legal counselling, as well as spiritual guidance. While there are other refugees and migrants in the country, out of 42 different nationalities, 86% of UNHCR’s registered asylum seekers and refugees are Venezuelans.
There are beneficiaries of the programmes of both the religious community and the state who would prefer they set out independently as entrepreneurs. In the borough of Chaguanas, there is an increasing number grasping the opportunities with both hands.