PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – The Chief Immigration Officer in Trinidad and Tobago, Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews, Wednesday warned that illegal immigrants from Venezuela could be linked to the new cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) now being recorded in Trinidad and Tobago.
Gandhi-Andrews told the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) virtual five-day virtual conference that the twin-island Republic is a mere seven miles from its South American neighbour “and a boat can reach our shores within minutes.
“We have noticed on social media the advertising of boat trips between Trinidad and Venezuela with a packaged deal of a taxi to take them to their accommodation. This speaks to an organised network of smugglers and facilitation by persons in Trinidad and Tobago and no doubt a flagrant disregard or ignorance of the laws of the country,” she told her audience.
The five-day conference by the Trinidad-based CARICOM agency is aimed at identifying how the pandemic has impacted criminality and organized crime and the implications for the future.
The event is being held under the theme “Securing Our Caribbean Community Within The Era Of Covid-19 and Beyond’.
The Chief Immigration Officer told the conference that Trinidad and Tobago had on March 18 closed its borders to all foreign nationals and five days later “the borders were closed to all persons, including citizens and residents who now had to shelter in places in a foreign country.
“Foreign nationals who were in Trinidad and Tobago as visitors had no means of returning to their home of abode and government granted extensions to their stay so that those persons could maintain legal status until their departure” with only cargo vessels being allowed to enter and leave and their crew remaining on board.
She said that a lock down of the entire country began on March 30 and within two months the oil rich twin island republic was able to flatten the curve.
“The country reopened on a phased basis and life returned to a new normal with new habits. The government began a mild return of citizens and residents with mandatory state quarantine for 14 days”.
She said illegal entry slowed during the period of the lockdown ‘as movement within the country was restricted and enforced by the police and the closure of businesses meant that there were no employment available.
“However with the relaxing of the lockdown and the reopening of the businesses there has been a marked increase in human smuggling between Trinidad and Venezuela. The borders are still closed, yet non-nationals have been trying to enter the country and some have been able to escape the increased maritime controls implemented by the Coast Guard and the land patrols by the police and the (Trinidad and Tobago) Defence Force”.
Gandhi-Andrews said that as an island with porous borders illegal entry can only happen by sea.
“Our laws prohibit illegal entry and it is an offence under the Immigration Act so too is inducing, aiding and abetting or attempting to induce, aid or abet any person to violate a provision of the law”.
Gandhi-Andrews said illegal migration is one of the biggest threats to any measures implemented to control the spread of the virus and within the last two weeks “there has been a sudden spike in the cases of coronavirus requiring epidemiological investigation.
‘Coincidentally that is happening with increasing illegal entry from Venezuela leading to widespread speculation by the public that illegal migrants have brought the virus with them.
“One needs only to read the comments on social media to understand the public concern,” she said, adding that with media reports of the virus spreading rapidly in Latin America “there is a high probability that illegal immigrants may come into the country undetected with the virus.”
She said Trinidad and Tobago like other small island developing states has limited resources and the spread of the coronavirus can easily overwhelm the health care system and a second lockdown of the country can damage the economy “to the detriment of all persons who call Trinidad and Tobago home”.