Braving the odds that their children could die in the perilous journey between Venezuela and Icacos, Venezuelan parents are sending their children unaccompanied to Trinidad in search of a better life.
Some of the children are only about two years old and are left in the care of strangers, barely past puberty themselves.
A senior police officer from the South Western Division who requested anonymity said the police stations were cramped with Venezuelan migrants, some of whom are children. Late last week, 51 migrants were being housed in various stations—seven in Penal, 14 in Fyzabad, 16 in Siparia, four in Point Fortin and 22 at Erin. It is uncertain how many of them were minors, as specific compiled records of minors are not usually kept. The last batch of 22, found at Beach Camp, Palo Seco, had three teenagers and a two-year-old.
The officer said in most cases, the migrants are handed over to the Immigration departments and the adults are usually charged with illegal entry. Penalty fines can range from incarceration to fines of up to $20,000.
The children, however, are handed over to the Children’s Authority, but the source said there is often little space available at existing children’s homes to house them. It is not uncommon for parents and children to be separated.
During an interview with Guardian Media, Dean in the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies and president of the Family Planning Association of T&T, Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine said she has noticed an increase in Venezuelan children.
“We have gone to Icacos twice in the last few months because the Family Planning Association is the agency under the UNHCR which deals with reproductive health for the migrants,” Antoine explained.
She added, “We have observed many, many children. Apart from the high incidents of violence against women and girls, there were many children evident in the migrant community so much so that we have had to expand our services to include paediatric services on a volunteer basis,” Antoine said.
She said the UNHCR usually fast tracks the refugee application for unaccompanied children but it was uncertain whether this was why more unaccompanied children were coming to T&T’s shores.
“They are desperate and some people believe the children will get a better life here. There are lots of children on our shores who need attention. We have to remember these children have no access to school,” she said.
Antoine noted that data pertaining specifically to unaccompanied minors was absent, noting that before any specific recommendations could be made.
Meanwhile, Angie Ramnarine founder of the La Romain Migrant Support Group, said if something is not done soon, homelessness and destitution will increase.
“When the children arrive, they cannot incarcerate them. Every day it’s getting worse. I don’t know what they will do with these children.” She added, “Because the children get special preference, yes, the authorities tend to be more humane and partial to children so there are many parents willing to sacrifice and stay in Venezuela and send their children here so they could have a better life here. “
Last week at a UWI virtual seminar, Legal Officer at Living Waters Community Ganesh Rampersad said the processing of refugee documents for unaccompanied children is often fast-tracked and assistance is given to the migrants.
He said some major problems facing refugees are lack of political will, no work rights, criminal targeting, death at sea, exploitation and abuse, heightened xenophobia, no safe housing or guardianship for unaccompanied children, no access to public or private schools for children, arbitrary detention, fear of retribution, labour exploitation, sexual and gender-based violence.”
“However there is a draft in the office of the Attorney General, but refugees have no right to work or school, no access to all public health care with the exception of emergency care,” Rampersad said.
He added that migrants in T&T come from Venezuela, Cuba, Nigeria, Jamaica, China, Bangladesh, Dominic Republic, Syria, Colombia and Pakistan.
Officials from the UNHCR said they will issue a comment on the plight of the children today.
Both Minister of National Security Stuart Young and Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews were not available for comment as messages sent to them went unanswered.