BEGINNING with an obvious fact—no one knows how many Venezuelan immigrants are within our borders—disagreement about numbers becomes irrelevant and a distraction from the core issue of how this country addresses a problem that has been years in the making with little official intervention.
Between acting Prime Minister Colm Imbert and Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews, the following data have been trapped: 3,800 Venezuelan immigrants are here legally; 9,080 are here through legal ports of entry but have overstayed their time and 12,257 have registered as refugees with the UNHCR between 2016 and 2019. That totals 25,137. The hard reality is that not Mr Imbert nor Ms Gandhi-Andrews or the UNHCR knows how many of our neighbours have been smuggled here over the years.
It is doubtful, too, how many Venezuelans will make use of the two-week registration exercise scheduled to begin today. Rhonda Maingot, director of the Living Water Community, the implementing partner to the UNHCR, is on record casting experiential doubt on how many Venezuelans are likely to come forward. Some may register, she told a TV morning show last week, but some have told her they will not register because they feel vulnerable. One assumes that vulnerability will be greater for those immigrants feeling political persecution.
Notwithstanding guesswork on numbers, the Government should not have been waiting to be told that the costs of receiving immigrants fleeing to Trinidad’s shores could be seriously burdensome. The inflow of people from the neighbouring republic seeking succour in this country has picked up since announcement of the registration arrangements. Today’s start for registration, which provides for legal status and permission to work for one year, announced as it was in early April, prompted a further spike in arrivals over the past weeks.
Certainly, as boatloads of the needy and the desperate kept coming, some policy and programme determinations had to be made without undue delay. Preparations for the Venezuelan Migrant Registration Process must have included some costing. Figures for the two-week rental of as major a facility as the Queen’s Park Oval, one venue of the registration process, must be eye-opening, but the proprietors declined to make any such disclosure. Nor has such information come from National Security Minister Stuart Young who, at least for the start of the process, will be out of the country anyway.
Launching its Financial Stability Report this week, the Central Bank has worked with what it calls a “reasonable” figure of 40,000 Venezuelans to be accommodated. The Bank factored in expenses for, among other things, social services, education, health, subsidies, and security, and came up with an estimate reaching $620 million a year.
The bank’s Governor Dr Alvin Hilaire has made clear that the cost of putting up an estimated three per cent of the population counts as a basis for seeking international assistance, possibly from the IDB. Will the Government take such advice? “We will push to our utmost,” Dr Hilaire vowed. Realistically, the Central Bank should not need to “push” in a direction where common sense should lead.