Influx of refugees spark national debate in Trinidad and Tobago

As the political, economic and migration crisis rolls on in Venezuela, a significant number of refugees continue to make their way to Trinidad and Tobago. This had led to concerns over the possible economic consequences of the recent influx. In June 2019 the UN estimated that 40,000 people had arrived to T&T. As migrants now make up 2.9% of T&T’s population – the highest rate in the region, above the 2.65% recorded in Colombia – there are particular concerns over the impact immigration could have on the labour and housing markets, as well as public sector programmes such as national insurance and health care. Nevertheless, the economy could stand to gain if migrants bring with them the right skills for the local job market.

Concerns

Citing figures which state that hosting migrants and refugees has cost Colombia 0.4% of its GDP, Alvin Hilaire, governor of the Central Bank of T&T, said in May 2019 that T&T’s economy could be similarly affected, estimating an economic cost of $620m a year.

T&T does not have an official asylum policy, but Venezuelans are required to hold a valid passport and visa. T&T recently offered a brief amnesty to Venezuelans already in the country, with some 16,500 people registered with the authorities between May and June 2019. Those who registered received work permits for either six months or one year, along with basic medical care and a photo ID. In January 2020 it was announced that those who received work permits for six months would have them automatically extended for another six months upon expiration. Notwithstanding this attempt to document migrants, there is a level of uncertainty over the lack of asylum legislation, not least for those who arrived after the work registration window.

Immigration Benefits

While politicians and members of the general public have expressed concerns over the recent wave of migrants, business leaders have highlighted possible positive outcomes. “Venezuelans see T&T as their next opportunity and, on the whole, arrive with highly ambitious mindsets. This could have a noticeably positive impact on the economy overall,” Sudesh Botha, director of local geospatial and engineering design company Giscad, told OBG.

The increase in the overall population could have beneficial effects in a number of areas, including the food, beverage and tobacco industry, the country’s largest manufacturing subsector. “An increasing demographic trend – as long as it is not at too fast a rate – is a good thing. An increase of 4% in the formal labour market creates a net contribution to society and has the knock-on effect of more consumers looking to buy packaged goods,” Dominic Hadeed, managing director of beverage company Blue Waters, told OBG.

This sentiment was echoed by Mitchell de Silva, chief country officer of Citibank’s T&T operations, who said the influx of migrants would lead to a “net benefit”. “Not only will migrant workers assist in filling the gaps in traditional low-skilled sectors, but the retail sector will also receive a boost,” he told OBG. “If handled correctly, this could help kick-start the economy.”

Building Latin American Connection

Furthermore, an increase in Venezuelans in T&T could help build stronger trade relations with the rest of Latin America. Separated by just 11 km of water, Venezuela and T&T enjoy close ties, as evidenced by their collaboration on a series of offshore oil and gas projects.

Beyond this, however, T&T has limited trade links with South American countries, with some industry players suggesting that an increase in the number of Spanish-speakers could help create greater engagement with the continent. “There are a number of companies based in T&T that are looking to enter Spanish-speaking markets. Some look favourably on the migration issue and therefore welcome the arrival of native Spanish speakers,” Dirk Prudent, director of Giscad, told OBG. “The country could position itself as a launch pad for other markets in the region. Many companies are hiring hard-working Venezuelans to help them bring forward their expansion plans in the continent,” he added.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

Country Profile chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

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