Illustration: ‘Police brutality’ by Pardafash
Elron Elahie and Shelene Gomes
Migration is often thought of as being motivated by aspirations for a better life. By contrast, in this post we highlight the struggles for survival – to stay alive and to meet basic needs for food, shelter and safety – in the case of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Venezuela in the English-speaking southern Caribbean island of Trinidad.
Ernesto’s family is one such example. He and his brother live in a rented two-bedroom flat in urban Trinidad. While it is unclear how Ernesto (a pseudonym) arrived in Trinidad with his wife, Ernesto’s brother, his brother’s wife and their two children braved the ocean in inflatable dinghies, risking the short yet choppy journey across the ocean from Venezuela. Since 2018, Venezuelan migrants have fled to the island for a chance at a better life; working to provide monies for family members at home and trying to survive in both countries. At present, the group Response for Venezuelans, estimates that there are 24,000 “refugees and migrants” from Venezuela. While mobility is key to survival, currently the ability to cross new borders means engaging with government policies of entrance as well as exit in spaces constructed as autonomous political states and imagined nations (diasporic and insular). The normalisation of stasis rather than movement persists in institutionalised frameworks of belonging (Glick Schiller and Salazar 2013). And correspondingly, the ‘managed mobility’ of the state serves to reproduce “the rapid glamorisation and then demonisation of categories of mobile people” (Glick Schiller and Salazar 2013: 184). Such policies differentially affect migrants.
In early 2020, one of us worked with a community group providing support for migrants where we had the opportunity to conduct unstructured interviews with migrants. We draw upon narrative enquiry to present Ernesto’s experiences. Not primarily to analyse its content for thematic resonance, but to present a vignette of migrant survival through Ernesto’s unique experiences as well as the commonalities of shared experience with migrants navigating regimes of mobility and immobility for everyday survival. Relatedly, because of Ernesto’s fear of enhanced state scrutiny into his legal status, he is not listed as an author on this submission; arguably a piece of writing that could help to raise his public profile and prospects for resettlement.
Within this comparatively small migration from Venezuela to Trinidad inequalities cross-cut experiences and the trajectories of Venezuelan migrants. There are differential capacities to mitigate the risks of migration and resettlement. Some enter by plane and go through immigration control at the international airport in Trinidad while others throw off life vests when they land on a beach. Migration through and across these islands and mainland territories is a longstanding characteristic of social life in the colonial as well as pre-colonial eras (Reid 2007; Forte 2004). People moved from the northern territory of former British Honduras (now Belize) in Central America, to Guyana and Suriname (formerly British and Dutch colonies) on the north eastern coast of South America, and throughout the Caribbean archipelago. Historically, in the 19th century, Spanish-speaking Venezuelans came to work on the cocoa estates in southern Trinidad. But few Spanish speakers remain in Trinidad. And today those who are present are popularly called ‘illegal migrants’ and constructed as different and ‘other’ to persons in the English-speaking, majority African- and South Asian-descended population of Trinidad. Following Spanish colonialism and a French plantocracy, British colonialism has left enduring effects on the state and the nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Constructed as an Anglicised postcolonial nation, Latinised Venezuelans do not fit into these dominant discourses, and are relegated to an inferior status; doubly so as migrants who ‘can’t even speak English properly’ as is popularly heard on the streets of urban Trinidad.
Shortly after settling in the neighbourhood in Trinidad, Ernesto confronted hostile verbal responses from locals, ordering him to ‘go back’ from where he came, while doing routine activities such as going to the neighbourhood shop and walking around trying to find odd jobs to earn money. Even though his landlord was “nice” and his apartment sufficient, these encounters were disquieting and threatening, Ernesto explained. Currently, migrants from Venezuela are the main scapegoats in Trinidad. They are blamed for various ills like introducing COVID-19 to the country, rising unemployment and decreasing wages. Stereotypes around the drug trade are tied into narratives of their involvement in crime. And, of course, they are blamed for the break-up of marriages because ‘loose’ migrant women seduce and ‘steal’ local men from ‘respectable’ partners. Arguably, Venezuelans have replaced migrants from Guyana and the Eastern Caribbean islands who were drawn to the prospects for work in oil and its derivatives from the early 20th century, and likewise previously labelled as ‘bad’ foreigners and categorised as illegals. But it is migrants who are trying to survive who confront the brunt of such micro-prejudices and state policies on detention and deportation while the state also offers migrant registration schemes to benefit from their labour.
It wasn’t until Ernesto’s labour benefitted the community (working odd jobs around people’s home for little money or in construction) that the harsh words receded. “These days I work at construction. The boss friend building a new house,” he celebrates. Work will be steady for at least the next three months. It is unclear the kind of work Ernesto did when he lived in Venezuela, but since living in Trinidad he’s established himself as having skilled hands for construction, masonry, and painting. But the quality of his work isn’t reflected in the thickness of his pockets. “Two hundred, señor,” he says, is the most he’s made in a day, explaining that he may work three days a week on average. And though he seems content with it, being able to pay the rent after joining funds with his brother who does the same type of work as Ernesto, the monthly sum is less than what is reasonably required to support a small family. Ernesto is satisfied, though, because his earnings can sometimes surpass minimum wage earnings in Trinidad – TT$17.50/hour (equivalent to approx. US$2.50). He also supports an ailing mother in Venezuela. But the perennial dark cloud over his hopeful sky is that work sometimes doesn’t come at all.
Trinidad and Tobago’s well-developed oil and natural gas industry is subject to international commodity price fluctuations. In addition to economic depression and recession in the past five years, COVID-19 has brought an additional decline. While government data islimited, unemployment and underemployment in Trinidad and Tobago are visible and acute problems. These conditions make it easy to criminalise certain groups of migrants, such as those who arrive by boat from Venezuela.
When Trinidad and Tobago’s government ordered all construction to be halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ernesto’s weekly earnings evaporated. As neither he nor any member of his family is a national of Trinidad, there was no way to access government social programmes for financial assistance. Wearing a face mask and carrying a bottle of water, Ernesto would walk from door-to-door seeking small jobs to help feed his family. In July 2020, he decided to tell his landlord to cut the electricity. He would no longer be able to pay for the ‘luxury’ of light or cool air. He preferred his family to sweat in the still, dark night sheltered than brave the street. But amid his strife, some strangers in his neighbourhood reached out to help. He developed a sense of indebtedness to them for helping to pay his rent, bills and giving him food. Outside of Ernesto’s neighbourhood also, community groups have come together and organised food collection and delivery to Venezuelan families across Trinidad. The community bonds formed in Ernesto’s neighbourhood that complemented the capitalist demands for waged labour also starkly contrast to the popular opinion of a local-foreign dichotomy.
“I have food now, señor. And my daughter is happy,” Ernesto says as he proudly shows photos of the toys she received for Christmas. For now, Ernesto can provide for his family. But at any moment that can change. If his landlord finds himself a member of the anti-migrant mob, if his boss is unable to find him work, if state authorities decide to exercise their callousness and disregard for international humanitarian law or if the state implements the policies of ‘managed mobility’ that are characteristic of the hostile state, Ernesto and his family will likely find themselves in the same position they were in two years ago.
Shelene Gomes teaches social anthropology and the sociology of culture at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus in Trinidad and Tobago. She is a research affiliate at the University of Johannesburg and has done ethnographic field work in East Africa, tracing the linkages between contemporary Caribbean migrations and cosmopolitan imaginings of personhood. Among other venues, her work appears in African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, The Global South, and Global Dialogue. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Elron Elahie is a PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds an MA (Dist) in Human Rights and Global Ethics from the University of Leicester and an LLB (Hons) from University College London. Currently working for the Caribbean Association of Judicial Officers, he has done extensive research into the elements of procedural fairness in the court systems of the Judiciary of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. This research is available open-access at http://www.ttlawcourts.org/jeibooks/. Elron also works with two local NGOs – CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice as well as the League for the Improvement of Families in Trinidad and Tobago (LIFTT). Twitter: @eloelmao
Glick Schiller, Nina and Salazar, Noel. B. 2013. Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39 (2): 183-200. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2013.723253
Reid, Basil. 2007. Popular Myths about Caribbean History. Mona, Jamaica: UWI Press.
Forte, Maximilian. 2004. Writing the Caribs Out: The Construction and Demystification of the Deserted Island Thesis for Trinidad. Issues in Caribbean Amerindian Studies 6 (3): 1-37.