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Have Mercy

Vicar General on refugee situation By Lara Pickford-Gordon,

There has been a change in attitude towards Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago. As their numbers increase with the economic crisis worsening in their homeland, xenophobia has reared its ugly head. In her 15 years in Trinidad, Venezuelan-born Andreina Briceno has never felt uneasy until now. Recently she experienced hostility with someone telling her “leave my country”. She said citizens were now “being rough” with Venezuelans.

As a member of the Santa Rosa Parish, she knows there are many “loving people”. Her wish is for nationals to realise they need to guard and help them. “I know a lot of Trinidadians help. It’s tough now, many don’t like Venezuelans anymore; we have to be careful where we going, how we talking, how we mingle…” she said in an interview last Tuesday.

Trinidad and Tobago’s repatriation of 82 Venezuelans including registered asylum seekers on April 21 evoked a response from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and Amnesty International. In a media release last Monday, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk stated, “The forced return of this group is of great concern.”

In the Senate last Tuesday, National Security Minister Edmund Dillon reported that three persons with asylum certificates had abandoned their asylum claims. He maintained all the Venezuelans “voluntarily” returned home.

Dillon, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi and Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews were reported to have met with UN Resident Co-ordinator for Trinidad and Tobago Richard Blewitt, and UNHCR representative Ruben Barbado.

Responding to a request on the Church’s response to the refugee issue, Vicar General Fr Martin Sirju told Catholic News that the general message as Church was to handle the situation with a mixture of common sense, mercy and compassion.

Underscoring that mercy must move from words to deeds he commented, “We cannot sing ‘God of Mercy and Compassion’ unless we are ready to be merciful and compassionate to others when the time comes.” “Common sense” also had to be exercised through proper screening of refugees because the current situation can be an opportunity for “unsavoury elements”—guns, drugs, human trafficking—to enter the country.

He noted the refugee crisis was happening when the T&T economy is weak and citizens were understandably touchy and nervous. Fr Sirju asked, “How many will be too many? And while most may be from Venezuela, others are coming from other parts of the globe. Most of these refugees want money to send back home so people can buy food.”

Pointing to scripture which should inform the Catholic response, he stated, “The Old Testament speaks of being kind to the ‘alien’ because the Israelites were once aliens in a foreign land (Deu 10:19); Jesus speaks of kindness to the strangers (Mt 25:35); the prophet Isaiah tells us to ‘widen the space of your tent’ (Is 54:2).” He added, “That Jesus comes to us under the form of bread and wine reminds us of the importance of food at every Eucharist.”

He did not think the country was overcrowded with refugees so the response can err on the side of caution. The Vicar General concluded, “Biblically, it is the better thing to do. It is who we have been historically as Church. We are morally obliged to help as Church.”

Briceno called for more tolerance, love and a “humanitarian” approach. She said what is happening to Venezuela could happen to any country, and T&T was “one of the closest points” to seek refuge. She quoted the saying ‘If your neighbour house on fire…’, adding, “[a]  little breeze and my own can catch fire; the situation in Trinidad is not the best.”

She said Venezuelans are seeking a better quality of life. Even the persons “living comfortably” are looking for other options because they “don’t know what can happen”. Inflation has caused the cost of goods to rise regularly and many are walking to work because they cannot afford transport.

Briceno said people are leaving their families, way of life, and culture to explore other options. She explained that Venezuelans are applying for refugee status and asylum because in this country there are no other options to stay legally.

Individuals who were professionals in their homeland are doing cleaning etc. She mentioned a couple who after paying rent and buying food can send just TT$200 for their four children to have food and continue their education. The husband earns $300 weekly and the wife works five days at $75/day.

She said although legally in this country, they are fearful of deportation, being taken advantage of and “rough up” so they only go to work. The husband is afraid to attend Mass.

She said Peru, Argentina, Ecuador have systems to assist refugees. Her brother is in Ecuador running a cafeteria. He came to Trinidad with hopes of working as a chef and starting a business but realised it was too difficult.  Briceno said Venezuelans were “passing through” because in T&T options are limited and they can’t get a work permit while here.