The unknown number of undocumented migrants coming ashore at various points along T&T’s porous borders and disappearing into communities is a concern that needs to be addressed with some urgency.
The ability of public health and national security officials to clamp down on COVID-19 is hampered because of these regular breaches of our maritime borders with Venezuela.
Just over a week ago, there were reports of at least 150 immigrants coming ashore in southwestern Trinidad. All but eight of them remain at large, managing to slip past coastal patrols and police surveillance. Yesterday, 15 migrants were arrested on Los Iros beach shortly after coming ashore and another 18 were held at guest houses in Bon Accord, Tobago.
But these are just the ones who have been detected. Reports from residents in Cedros, Palo Seco and other coastal communities are that scores of migrants are coming into the country under the cover of night. Some disappear into the nearby forests and others are whisked away in waiting vehicles.
Somewhat belatedly, there is the promise of a strengthening of border security using surveillance drones and a newly-formed Police Coastal Unit to patrol the 10-mile expanse of coastline currently being exploited by traffickers to smuggle people, livestock, guns and drugs into T&T. Since that is still about a month away, for now, there remains a gaping hole in the country’s anti-COVID measures which increases the risk of community spread.
This week, with the renewed focus on the virus following the detection of two cases not linked to international travel, some close attention should be paid to possible chains of transmission linked to illegal entries which might be taking place much more frequently than the authorities are willing to admit.
What makes this an even more worrying possibility are reports that some law enforcement officers might be complicit in the trafficking of people into this country from Venezuela.
With illegal entries, there is no way of detecting any individuals who might be bringing COVID-19 into the country because they avoid all health and security checkpoints. These undocumented migrants easily blend into this country’s already sizeable migrant population and settle into routines that can involve contacts with the wider community in ways that might be conducive for the spread of infection. Furthermore, when they get ill, they will also not seek treatment at a public health facility.
In this kind of scenario, all of the efforts by local authorities to flatten the COVID-19 curve will be for nought.
The pandemic has triggered an unprecedented chain reaction of border closures around the world to stop the virus. T&T’s borders have been closed since midnight on March 22 but illegal entries are undermining the efforts to protect T&T’s health and socioeconomic stability.
This is the one element of the coronavirus fight where Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh cannot claim success. Rather, he should, with some urgency, direct the attention of public health professionals to this potential source of contagion.