The Anglican and Catholic Churches in Guyana have joined several rights-based and other non-governmental organisations in calling on the Guyana and other Caribbean countries to stop treating Venezuelan refugees fleeing political and economic turmoil in their homeland, as illegal migrants but register them on arrival.
“A collaborative approach to governance encompassing relevant civic, business and Government agencies might begin by ensuring registration of Venezuelan refugees arriving at our borders, thereby both providing them with legal protection and discouraging illegal entry through porous borders and beaches,” the group said.
They reasoned that registration of Venezuelan refugees “would also strengthen the possibility of more orderly reintegration of the refugees into their own country when circumstances permit a safe and minimally decent life.”
The group includes Anglican Diocese of Guyana, Roman Catholic Bishop of Guyana Francis Alleyne, BENAB (Youth), Church Women United, East Coast Clean-Up Committees, Guyana Society for the Blind, Guyana Environment Initiative (GEI), Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) and Guyanese Organization of Indigenous peoples (GOIP), Jesuits in Guyana, Policy Forum Guyana, Red Thread, Rights of Children (ROC), Transparency Institute Guyana Inc. and Ursuline Sisters in Guyana.
The organisations believed that that “principled and rights-oriented humanitarian response” would be in keeping with the 15-nation Caribbean Community’s (Caricom) desire to “avoid becoming embroiled in Venezuelan domestic politics.”
Guyanese courts have been convicting Venezuelans for illegally entering Guyana, fining them and ordering them deported.
The non-governmental organisations cautioned that if their recommendation is not accepted, Venezuelan refugees would continue to be “vulnerable to the kind of treatment experienced by the isolated cases of Angolan, Haitian, Cuban and other refugees who have found their way to our shores. The default response has been to treat them as illegal immigrants often detained for months on end.”
The Guyanese organizations said they are calling on gvernments and civil societies of Caricom to recognize the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis currently experienced by the people of Venezuela.
“Caricom countries are already beginning to feel the effects of the tens of thousands of refugees seeking asylum in neighbouring Latin American countries as a result of the severe economic disintegration and political instability fuelling that crisis,” the organisations said.
Venezuelans- many of whom sail across the Gulf of Paria- make up the largest number of illegal migrants in Trinidad. The Guyanese groups said the effects of the economic chaos are reflected in the mounting numbers of refugees which threaten to overwhelm welfare and health systems in the border regions of countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Panama, with a potential for similar effects in neighbouring Caricom territories.
The Guyanese organisations noted that the humanitarian crisis is characterized by a shortage of medicines and food, the collapse of public services, the world’s highest inflation rate, overt violence and serious human rights violations.
With the political institutions of the State in crisis and widespread allegations of torture and illegal detention, the churches and groups in Georgetown note that guns that had been distributed by the then administration of President Hugo Chavez to defend the state are now being bartered for necessities such as food.
They noted that a particularly worrying dimension of the Venezuelan crisis for Caricom territories was pointed out in June 2017 by UWI Professor of Sustainable Development, Dr. Anthony Clayton, quoted in the Jamaica Gleaner to the effect that “The problem we are facing is, because with Venezuela’s economic collapse, there is now evidence of weapons flooding out of Venezuela, initially into Trinidad, but which will come percolating through the Caribbean. Venezuela has got more guns per person than almost any other country in the (western) hemisphere, including the United States.”
He went on to point out that former President Chavez armed militias all over the country to combat the threat of invasion and “now, with the economy collapsing, a lot of them are selling their weapons and they are selling them for groceries, pharmaceuticals and basic survival items”.
Despite the security issues and the fact that Caricom territories’ capacity for delivering health and welfare services are limited, the Guyanese organisations said those factors do not absolve Caricom countries from the responsibility of developing just and fraternal reception policies and of respecting the fundamental rights of individual refugees.
“As civil and faith-based organizations our responsibility to engage with the humanitarian dimensions of the Venezuelan crisis is no less real than that of Governments. For this reason in a spirit of solidarity and social justice and in collaboration with relevant international agencies, we commit to engaging with the challenge of promoting the protection of the fundamental rights of Venezuelan refugees,” they said.