There is considerable confusion about the status of fleeing Venezuelans crowding into Trinidad and Tobago with more confusion to come.
Some have gained entry through legal points of entry, but many have breached the conditions of their permitted admission, such as by working without the appropriate permit or overstaying the period for which the Immigration Department permitted them to enter.
Many others have entered Trinidad and Tobago illegally, meaning that they simply passed clandestinely through seaside towns and villages. Some of these are victims of human trafficking.
It is also feared that gangsters and other criminal elements may have entered Trinidad and Tobago as part of this tide of persons crossing from Venezuela into Trinidad.
These Venezuelan arrivals are very visible in hospitality and service businesses and on construction sites. These broad categories of persons are not amenable to a one size fits all policy. The merits of what humanitarian assistance they might reasonably be offered would vary considerably.
For a long time, our government bobbed and weaved around the Venezuelan influx. The government’s hope that it could access natural gas from Venezuela, principally known as Dragon Gas, was no doubt the cause of its bobbing and weaving. It did not want to appear to be critical of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela by readily receiving Venezuelan migrants.
Belatedly, after the obvious reality that no gas would be coming from Venezuela, the government is now attempting to deal with the issue of the Venezuelan influx by providing a registration process by which these nationals can obtain a registration document permitting them to gain employment for one year without hindrance and without regard to the basis on which they entered Trinidad and Tobago.
The persons who succeed in this registration process will no doubt say ‘bienvenidos’ to Trinidad and Tobago’s belated concession to the reality of their influx. Their exemption from NIS payments will make their labour cheaper than that of our citizens.
The right questions have already been asked about the conditions of this registration process, such as, what are the safeguards against legitimising persons of bad character and what is to happen when the one-year period expires. What will be the status of children born in Trinidad and Tobago as a result of relationships formed during the one-year period?
I have not been able to find any ministerial statement made in Parliament about the registration process and the policy considerations underlying it. The Minister of National Security, Stuart Young, announced the policy at a Cabinet media briefing in mid-April.
In addition, on Tuesday last in the Senate—in answer to a question for oral answer and also reportedly speaking to journalists at the Parliament—the Acting Minister of National Security, Mr Fitzgerald Hinds, made a number of further somewhat expansive statements about the registration process, which started at the end of May.
No doubt, the lawyers in the government are aware that throughout the Commonwealth, immigration policies have been a major field in which the legitimate expectation doctrine has been applied in favour of migrants. In essence, when some statement or undertaking is given by or on behalf of a public authority, which has the duty of making the relevant decisions, they may come to bind the public authority.
In colonial era Hong Kong, for example, the immigration authorities, in the course of a crackdown on illegal immigrants from China, were unable to deport an illegal immigrant of Chinese origin because of a public announcement that—in the case of Chinese origin immigrants coming from Macau—each one would be interviewed.
In circumstances where the immigrant entering from Macau had not been given an opportunity fully to explain to the Director of Immigration the humanitarian grounds on which he should be allowed to remain, the Privy Council ruled that he could not be deported.
Having read the reports of what Ministers Young and Hinds have said, I predict that, as ad hoc supplemental promises are made along the way, this registration process is going to take the government and people of Trinidad and Tobago into much deeper commitments than those currently anticipated.
They will provide much wriggle room for the migrants.