Venezuelan children play football under the watchful eyes of T&T Coast Guard officers at the Heliport in Chaguaramas on Saturday. Migrants who enter the country illegally are being quarantined at the venue before being deported. (Image: ANISTO ALVES)

Gail Alexander

Police Commissioner Gary Griffith is moving on several reports of suspected illegal foreigners housed in parts of the country, including South Trinidad—and he’s reinforced that any T&T national assisting such situations will also be charged.

Griffith confirmed this yesterday after information from certain areas, including South, was received.

This after National Security Minister Stuart Young on Saturday announced a crackdown on illegal immigrants entering T&T and, noting the recent spike in localised COVID-19 cases, moves to penalise boatmen, drivers, landlords, businessmen and legal Venezuelans who are facilitating illegal immigrants. The latter puts the public at COVID-19 risk.

Last Wednesday 66 people—disembarking vessels, hiding in bushes and found in guesthouses —were arrested in South and Tobago. Several T&T nationals were also charged in connection with that activity.

After Young spoke about the issue during Saturday’s COVID-19 virtual media briefing, members of the public reached out to authorities. Up to yesterday, police were contacting residents in various areas over suspected “new” foreigners.

Last Saturday, residents of several communities cited problems with illegal migrants and complaints were also made about certain “activities” at premises.

Griffith yesterday said they received reports on suspected foreigners being housed in certain areas, adding some people had very reliable information. He said police would pursue all leads, “and any T&T nationals assisting, supporting or directing such activities will also be charged.” He urged the public to continue submitting information, including via the 482-GARY hotline.

There are also reports that people in Venezuela are advertising services to bring Venezuelans to T&T.

T&T nationals also expressed concern about seeing Venezuelan vessels landing in Chaguaramas to “sell fish” but bringing between seven and 12 people—none of whom were seen wearing masks. In a social media posting, a man noted up to three boats in one morning, querying how they were allowed to operate.

Griffith has also been apprised of information where certain comments on a Spanish social media site had condemned—in extreme terms—T&T police who are holding illegal migrants.

Included was a rant hoping that T&T police “die”. The writer argued that people were coming to T&T to save their families and illegals shouldn’t be deported. Another complained of “no protection.”

Griffith acknowledged some people have always passed negative comments on T&T police, but declared, “We do our work – we press on.”

Also, the operators of a Venezuelan social media site have noted T&T nationals who’ve been commenting against the presence of Venezuelans in T&T, citing the need to protect this country.

The site later carried information—in Spanish—to its administrators that T&T nationals were “among” them on the website, watching their steps. It was advised that suspicious profiles be purged, that T&T groups should be blocked, persons should be verified and photos of participants be taken. Venezuelan participants were warned to ‘’take care of themselves.’’

The amount of “chatter” on Venezuelan social media about T&T has prompted certain local concern on whether some fleeing the Nicolas Maduro administration may pose a threat to T&T’s safety. Only those without criminal records were allowed under T&T’s amnesty. Concerns have also been raised on whether the amnesty cards can be duplicated. Cards carry special security features.

Young didn’t respond to queries on the issue yesterday.

But Opposition MP Roodal Moonilal said with localised cases of COVID-19, there was a genuine concern that some Venezuelans may be carrying the virus.

“We’re now in community spread of COVID. Government has failed with marginal testing when we’d called for wider testing,” he said.

Moonilal blamed Government for the continued influx of Venezuelans.

“We’d advocated a mixture of police, involving police and Coast Guard and international help, but in Parliament Young was arrogant, disdainful and dismissive.”

He said people from many areas have complained about illegal Venezuelans.

“We alert police … Police are trying their best but you have to prevent entry via sea. The Coast Guard is National Security’s responsibility—they’ve failed.”

NGO concerned over Stuart’s comments

The TTV Solnet Coalition for Venezuela says Minister of National Security Stuart Young’s call to denounce landlords and people harbouring illegal immigrants is causing it deep concern at the possible impact against all Venezuelan immigrants, especially those who have the ministry’s T&T permit and United Nations refugee status.

In a statement, the group stated both are categories are legally protected by national and international laws that include freedom of movement and from discriminatory persecution.

The group urged that “clarification or clear distinction on illegal and legal” migrants be made to ensure the safety of all migrants in the T&T under these legal migratory statuses.

“Currently, it’s estimated 24,000 Venezuelans are in T&T that are holders of one or both of these migratory conditions, unfortunately governmental sources don’t count for Venezuelans without a regular status so this number can be higher,” the group said.

“We’d like to commend the Government for taking firm measures to stop and combat illicit activities involving the smuggling and trafficking of Venezuelans into T&T by local criminal gangs and criminal businessmen. We praise the implementation of the 555 hotline as an official reporting channel, to bring to justice all organisations and individuals suspected of trafficking and smuggling of innocent people. This is indeed a step in the right direction, which we hope contributes to reducing the amount of human trafficking in CARICOM.”

The group urged the UN Commission on Refugees and other agencies to guarantee the protection of Venezuelan migrants, especially during the COVID pandemic, and be guarantors for the handling of detentions, quarantines, returns and possible deportations of Venezuelan migrants.