Post 400.

Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has provoked local debate about what constitutes humane state and social policy toward refugees and migrants. It was inhumane to put human beings, including children, to sea in a pirogue. It’s inhumane to deport those who are in the process of resolving refugee claims. It’s inhumane to separate children from parents.

However, the nitty-gritty of a human rights approach across state agencies, the labour market and our communities is much more complex and propels us, a migrant society, to reckon with the contradictory mix of stereotypes, exploitation and sexual violence as well as compassion and opportunity that Venezuelan and other migrants encounter here.

Venezuelans were already migrating to and from Trinidad when First Peoples still called the island Kairi. Indeed, we are a broken fragment from the Venezuelan mainland. We also have a long and embedded history of Spanish-speaking communities.

It’s clear that contemporary capital and elites move across borders with an ease and invisibility that the most poor and vulnerable are inequitably and visibly denied, whether because of their nationality, race, gender, sexuality or disability, or limited formal schooling. Yet, migrants always contribute to economies and societies, particularly when there are legal options for them to integrate, and should never be maligned simply as burden or criminal threat.

There has been and will always be migration, within and across national borders. It is increasing as a result of growing economic inequality and climate change, both of which are linked to political instability. The question is how we choose to understand and manage it. And, we should keep in mind, we may be in the same position one day.

There is Minister Young’s commitment to upholding immigration law combined with the porous reality of our borders, which makes such commitment operate through highly unsystematic policing, often accompanied by an extra-legal male threat, extortion and violence to those entering under the shadows of state oversight.

There is an informal economy that can absorb both documented and undocumented migrants because they can be paid lower wages and their labour can be more greatly exploited, particularly women working in feminised roles as domestics, carers, low-waged employees in supermarkets and factories, and in service jobs in restaurants and bars.

Unclear policy direction has also meant that Venezuelan migrants, especially women and girls, are vulnerable to violence of various kinds, from partners, employers, landlords, immigration officials, and traffickers, and are at risk of deportation if they report any of these crimes. Children of parents without asylum or citizenship status also become stateless, living in countries in which they have no right to education, livelihoods and health. This will certainly become a challenge. Given the numbers of migrant children out of school, it already is.

I’ve been listening a lot. Hearing both heart and help from so many on the ground, and also fear and condemnation, not only of Venezuelans, but migrants overall. As young migration scholar Tivia Collins wrote in her letter to the editor of August 28, “Despite our personal opinions on the circumstances of Venezuelans’ arrival to Trinidad and Tobago, or on the ways we think they live, we have a right to be kind and show empathy to others in need” In their article documenting interviews with Venezuelan migrant women, Collins and Richie Ann Daly recommend that “the Government of Trinidad and Tobago implement a migration policy that guarantees the rights of migrants in vulnerable situations within the country.” They call for “local legislation on asylum seekers and refugees, which would provide a formal system for Venezuelan migrants to legally live and work in Trinidad and Tobago.” Third, they emphasise training for immigration officers and public education to promote empathy.

R4V (Response for Venezuelans), a co-ordination platform for refugees and migrants from Venezuela, additionally calls on Caribbean states to ensure that “returns to Venezuela are not forced.” In its own words, “It is important to note that returning to one’s home country is a human right, and often the most desirable durable solution for many refugees. However…the current conditions in Venezuela remain problematic and not conducive for a dignified and safe return. At this point, returns should continue to be only for those who truly wish to voluntarily return and are not forced…since this would amount to…a serious human right violation”.

Such discrimination and violation are happening here, with tragic impunity. I reflect on this reading the newspapers, reminding myself about justice and kindness, and a nation of migrants yet again struggling to recognise our common humanity.

Post 373.

Our next crisis is one of food. At the end of March, Minister Paula Gopee Scoon assured that there was a six month food cover, and that food shortages would not be an issue. Supermarket owners instead signaled that food prices will continue to rise and predicted supply shortages. Agricultural economists pointed to a two to three month cover – this isn’t unusual when supply chains are working, but when they are not, shortages are to be expected.  Newspaper headlines have already highlighted that people are having difficulty putting food on the table.

The UN’s World Food Programme has predicted that the number of people suffering from acute hunger will double, to 265 million. More than the numbers, however, it’s their language that hits home, describing an oncoming catastrophe as “as hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock…to push them over the edge”.

There are multiple shocks to the region, from a decline to tourism to energy revenues. We are weeks from hurricane season and potentially devastating flooding, including of farmers’ fields. Venezuelan migration will continue, putting additional pressure on diverse population needs in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s an issue of supply chains, but for Trinidad and Tobago, it’s also an issue of excessive food imports, declining foreign exchange, decreased family income, and the long devaluation of local agriculture.

Here at home, 194,000 people make a living on minimum wage. If some of those jobs will never recover after this initial impact of COVID-19, how will people afford to eat? 

Labour and livelihood are directly related to food provision. In this context, women will experience the hammer blow hardest. They dominate in the lowest-paid jobs and there are fewer women in higher paying sectors. Given that women also undertake the majority of childcare regardless of whether they are employed full time, all those calling for the economy to open, while children remain home, seem blind to the cost and value of childcare, and women’s unequal responsibility.

Women are clustered in the service, hospitality and retail sectors where jobs will contract as consumer demand decreases. Many women also depend on the informal economy as self-employed or own account workers with little  financial protection – whether they are domestic workers or free-lance in the once-lauded ‘gig’ economy. Those that were in more secure jobs will receive contracts of shorter duration that cut costs on their health and other benefits as employers aim to save money. Those who were able to send remittances, often mothers, may now be among the millions of unemployed in the US, directly impacting children’s welfare.

When men also experience lower wages and unemployment, thousands of unresolved court cases for child maintenance will result in less support to women who still need to send children to school and provide sufficient nutrition.

So, the food crisis is gendered in terms of vulnerability of income and responsibility for food provision. Mainly, this situation has been seen as an historic opportunity – to cut excessive imports, to establish more autonomy from US agricultural outputs, to diversify outlets for regionally and locally grown food, to strengthen intra-Caribbean agricultural trade, and to reduce food waste.

In the meanwhile, at times of difficulty, women and girls become more vulnerable to exploitative options such as transactional sex, borrowing money, staying in violent relationships or going into debt to pay for food.

With greater dependence on food hampers and donations over the next year, there is also risk of shifting families to non-perishable, nutrient-poor, heavily processed foods, which are high in fats, salts and sugars, instead of fresh vegetables and fruit. This threatens to increase diseases such as diabetes, further deepening responsibility for care of ill family.

Women already labour longer hours than men both in the economy and at home – that means fewer hours to earn an income amidst greater responsibility for children. Calls for everyone to plant food gardens are good, and necessary, but also impose an additional responsibility on women as breadwinners, nurturers and food producers. This fits the myth that Caribbean mothers can work miracles and it enables blame when they can’t cope.

Multiple voices are pitching good, often long-proposed, food solutions. For each of them, issues of gender – defined by roles, responsibilities, and inequalities in access to resources and power – must be given a place at the table when we face what is being called ‘third shock wave’, which is hunger.