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Trinidad And Tobago Is Ignoring Its Venezuelan Refugee Problem (HBO)

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Cedros, on the remote southwestern tip of the island of Trinidad, is a sleepy fishing village unaccustomed to heavy traffic. Its port is little more than a narrow jetty sticking out into the water and a small customs house on shore.

But in recent months, ferries have been dropping off passengers by the dozen, most of them hauling large rolling suitcases behind them. That’s because Cedros happens to be seven miles away from the Venezuelan coast, where political turmoil and a collapsing economy is driving people out by the thousands.

“Before this situation developed, the number of [Venezuelans] entering through the port was under 100 weekly,” said Shankar Teelucksingh, the councillor for Cedros. “Today we have over 1,500. And that’s just what we can keep track of — that excludes the ones that come into the country illegally.”

Roughly 3.4 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The large majority have gone overland to Colombia, Peru, and other South American countries. But proportionally, Trinidad and Tobago has received the most: an estimated 60,000 Venezuelans now live in the island nation, which amounts to more than four percent of its population.

And yet, of all the countries bearing the brunt of the Venezuelan refugee crisis, Trinidad and Tobago has done the least to address it. Venezuelans there can apply for refugee status from the UNHCR, which entitles them to stay in the country. But the government has not otherwise made significant efforts to integrate them or provide them with legal status.

Adults are not legally allowed to work, and children are not given the right to a public education. As a result, Venezuelans in Trinidad live mostly underground. The lucky ones find local residents who are willing to help them.

After months of living in overcrowded conditions with other families, Josué Campos and his family met a local school principal named Kelly-Ann Langdon-Pascal, who let them enroll their daughter for free in her small private school. Langdon-Pascal also rented them her basement apartment for cheap.

Campos and his wife now work odd jobs cleaning houses and on construction sites. “It’s tough, because you have to live in fear,” Campos said. “You’re working and you’re wondering if immigration is coming, if the police are coming. It’s not stable.”

Still, odd jobs in Trinidad are a better deal than a stable job in Venezuela: A day’s work in Trinidad is enough to buy food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Campos said. “With the minimum wage you get in Venezuela, you can’t even buy breakfast.”

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