(TRINIDAD GUARDIAN) – The ongoing economic crisis in Venezuela is forcing its citizens to flee their island and apply for asylum in T&T.
To date, approximately 2,000 Venezuelans have applied for asylum in T&T and the numbers are increasing, acting Chief Immigration officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews told a Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, Equality and Diversity yesterday.
The issue of Venezuela was raised by member Esmond Forde, who questioned Gandhi-Andrews about the influx of Spanish speaking nationals coming to our shores, as their country faces shortages of food, medicine, violent crime and rising unemployment.
Forde pointed out that as of March 2018, there were 67 Venezuelans detained at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Aripo.
In 2015, there were 29 male Venezuelan detainees, while there were no females. In 2016, the male detainees jumped to 125, while there were 97 females. Last year, the male detainees declined to 45, with 82 females.
Gandhi-Andrews told the committee, which is chaired by Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, that Venezuelans have been coming in droves as a result of their country’s current situation.
On a weekly basis, she said between 150 to 200 Venezuelans come to T&T via the sea.
“But the numbers we have been seeing at the detention centre…the majority of them…at least 90 per cent of those persons have entered the country illegally or have a criminal conviction…either possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking or possession of arms and ammunition,” Gandhi-Andrews said.
She said most of them come with no travel documents, making it difficult for the Immigration Division to identify them, adding 37 males and 30 females Venezuelans detainees are currently housed at the IDC.
Gandhi-Andrews said there were plans to take the Venezuelans detainees home using a T&T Coast Guard vessel, but this is yet to materialise, while some detainees preferred to travel by plane to Caracas.
Between 2014 to 2016, approximately 60,000 Venezuelans came to T&T, she said, adding there was a decline in numbers in 2015.
“Last year, the figure would have been just around 28,000 Venezuelan nationals arriving at a legal port of entry. The numbers we are picking up who have entered the country illegally, we can safely say that larger numbers are arriving. And more are being detained.”
She said quite a number of them have also applied for asylum.
“The number of Venezuelans who have applied from asylum have gone from five in 2016 … to well over 1,000 perhaps 2,000 Venezuelans nationals today. And daily those numbers are being added to.”
When they come in, Gandhi-Andrews said they go to the Living Waters Community and apply for asylum and they are then referred to Immigration Division.
Member Vidia Gayadeen-Gopeesingh also raised issue about $6 million being spent on food for detainees in 2016.
The centre, which currently has 120 detainees, can accommodate 158. In 2015, the State spent $5.5 million on food, while in 2016 it increased to $6 million.
Gandhi-Andrews said at any given time the numbers of detainees can change, while the caterer had increased the price of three meals per day for each detainee from $50 to $80.
The committee was told the supplier of the meals, JD De Freitas, is a school feeding distributor.
Member Saddam Hosein said what troubled him most was the meals, because when he looked at the menu the detainees were fed cheese spread sandwiches, tea and juice.