Tangled Webs: Gender Based Violence; Xenophobia and Migration – By: Karin Diaz and Angelique V. Nixon 


Further, migration fueled through economic, socio-political and/or climate crises has become even more difficult to manage as countries grapple with multiple and complex challenges. Yet migrants and refugees become easy targets and scapegoats as countries shore up national borders while relying on migrant labour and treating migrants as pariah and disposable. There is something here to be unravelled in the violence towards women and children and the violence towards migrants — entangled at the intersections of class, race and gender.   

Thus far in 2020, 47 women have been murdered in Trinidad & Tobago (45 women and 2 girls) — of whom at least two were Venezuelan women. The majority of these killings happened at the hands of men and through horrific acts of intimate partner violence or sexual assault. In the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian of 6 December, Sharlene Rampersad reports a detailed list of names, ages and causes of death, as well as reports of missing women and girls and the astonishing rates of reported sexual assault. The rates of sexual violence reported in 2020 increased to an alarming 332 cases by the end of October according to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service, and 416 women and girls have been reported missing so far in 2020.
In the midst of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, two women have been killed — 18 year old Ashanti Riley was found dead after being reported missing for three days. Her body was found on the same day as that of Krystal Primus-Espinoza’s, whose body was found wedged between rocks along the Balandra coast. Both incidents remind us that women are not safe in private or public: Ashanti Riley was kidnapped and sexually assaulted as she took a private taxi to go to her grandmother’s birthday party, while Krystal Primus-Espinoza went missing from her husband’s vehicle. Investigations are ongoing for both of these cases.

Meanwhile in Guyana, 26 Haitian women, men and children were detained after arriving on travel visas and being granted up to 6 months of stay. Officials initially claimed they were put into protective custody over fear of human trafficking (raising the question of why those defined as ‘vcitims’ would then be revictimized by detention?), even as the Haitians themselves have insisted that they entered legally and are not trafficked. Media reports that the Haitian children have been separated from their families. Activists and civil society organisations (from Guyana and across the region) have called upon the Government of Guyana to respond to requests for clarifications on this matter and urged sensitivity and compassion for Haitian migrants. Moreover, the separation of children from their parents is unacceptable, in the wake of horrifying news reports from the United States where thousands have been deported and hundreds of children have been not just separated from parents but also sexually and physically abused in detention centres. This inhumane treatment and violation of people’s human rights has become part of the xenophobic landscape and accepted treatment of migrants around the world.

Tourism and the outward migration of Caribbean people should have equipped us to accommodate persons migrating into our spaces. Yet migration remains a highly contentious issue in the region. While Venezuelans are hyper-visible in the current moment, they certainly are not the only migrants to experience xenophobia and deportation. Guyanese, Jamaicans, and Haitians are regularly singled out for deportation and unfair treatment across the region, in spite of CARICOM obligations and the CSME supposed freedom of movement and visiting visa agreements.

Meanwhile in Trinidad and Tobago, 16 Venezuelan minors and 11 adults (all asylum seekers) were sent back to Venezuela by the Coast Guard, after they were caught trying to enter “illegally.” Some defended this action in the name of “national interest,” citing various reasons, including the state’s inability to address crime and the needs of marginalised communities. Xenophobic sentiments filled media and public conversations with conflicting reports about the deportations, as the courts ordered the asylum seekers to be returned. Leaders repeated anti-migration talking points common in the Global North and cited “sovereignty” as reasons for not responding to the calls for humane treatment, international obligations, and asylum claims to be upheld. Prime Minister Rowley further stoked the flames of xenophobia when he framed appeals for the state to take a more compassionate approach to migrants and refugees as attempts to grant them “more rights” than the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.

Ironically, we call out the mistreatment of Caribbean people as migrants in the Global North while ignoring or endorsing the similar inhumane treatment of migrants within our region. The contradictions and hypocrisy are clear when it comes to intra-Caribbean migration, particularly towards people from countries in the worst economic and political situations — historically this has been Jamaica, Guyana, and Haiti – and since 2014, Venezuela. Guyana as a neighbour of Venezuela also has its share of refugees and asylum seekers escaping political and socio-economic turmoil, now exacerbated by the pandemic. The response in this latest situation with Venezuelan migrants in Trinidad and Tobago highlights another contradiction;  while our own problems are cited as justification to not assist migrants and refugees, the Trinidadian state has done little to meaningfully address some of the same issues, in particular the alarming rates of gender based and other forms of structural violence.

Further, xenophobia becomes political and fueled during these already vexed times. The Opposition Leader accused the Prime Minister of allowing Venezuelans to enter Trinidad and Tobago in order to win more votes in elections, while the Prime Minister aimed his ire at the organisations demanding a more compassionate and comprehensive state approach to migration. The lack of leadership on both sides points to what lies at the heart of the migrant crisis: a lack of coherent and expert-informed action. With only short-term solutions, the response remains weak and without leadership to dispel the most common myths, many are using Global North narratives to frame their understanding. Every utterance of “they’re taking our jobs’’ should remind us that our claims to “sovereignty” are complicated and vexed through the failures of globalisation and capitalism, working class struggles, and foreign dependency. People’s fears and anxieties are understandable amidst layoffs, business closures, and economic uncertainty due to the pandemic. Yet we also know that migrant labour is relied upon as parts of informal and formal economies, and at the same time, the desire to move with freedom is a core concern and ought to be a right in our region.

If we are mimicking Global North narratives, then it follows that we’ve internalised some of their values, including rugged individualism, which discourages us from seeking support from and supporting others. These internalised values lie at the heart of the unwillingness to empathize with Venezuelan migrants (among others in T&T such as Jamaicans and Guyanese); richly ironic, since our region is known for its large outward (and inward) migration. Most of us know at least one relative or family friend who acquired US, British, or Canadian citizenship by overstaying their visa or other means, but far too many of us harp on the “illegal” entry of migrants today. Our penchant for corruption and flouting the law deepens this contradiction, as does the argument that what our relatives and friends did was “different.” Both Venezuelan migrants residing in our region and our loved ones residing abroad left for greener pastures, by any means necessary.

Anti-migrant and xenophobic sentiments ought to be understood within the contexts of violence, economic insecurity, racial and class violence, and the continued assault on the lives of women and girls. Too often when we make these kinds of connections we are told, these are different and we must prioritise focus and deal with “local issues” first or “one issue at a time”. But we do not live single issue lives, as the Black feminist poet Audre Lorde reminds us. It is important to connect the tangled webs of intersecting violences — the lack of value we place on poor lives, migrant lives, Black lives, LGBTQI lives, women’s lives and children’s lives, all of which are rooted in historical legacies of colonial violence and racism.

In recognising the role of culture and popular thought in challenging both gender based violence and xenophobia, organisations in Trinidad and Tobago have been creating spaces for public education. One of those spaces took the form of a social media campaign by the intersectional feminist organisation WOMANTRA called “Thrive Together – A Refugee Rights campaign” (you can find this on Facebook/Instgram @holeishole). The project searches for common ground between the Trinidadian and Venezuelan migrant communities and addresses a problem that both communities face: Gender Based Violence. In order to highlight this intersection, “Thrive Together” uses vibrant graphics that explain our shared history, language, and culture, including our shared culture of machismo. Xenophobia has resurfaced at various points of our history: before the Venezuelans, recently-migrated Chinese persons were the subjects of xenophobic ire, and before that, Guyanese and Grenadians. The campaign highlights and explains the specific vulnerabilities of migrant women to violence and exploitation in the larger context of this national (and indeed global) crisis of gender based violence.

Trinidad and Tobago is not the only Caribbean country dealing with these challenges of regional migration and the classist, racist and xenophobic attitudes and policies that dangerously align with Global North countries. In spite of CARICOM and CSME, there are numerous restrictions and barriers to freedom of movement across the region. It’s important for us to recognise that this is a global issue connected with other issues such as poverty, climate crisis, war and political conflict. Uprooting is never an easy decision. People rarely want to rank all their worldly belongings, which carry the weight of memory, nostalgia and history, to decide which things are important enough to travel with to a new land and do the difficult painful work of rebuilding communities for themselves. The framing of “migrant” and “expat” once again highlights the unequal flows of power and capital, where persons who are forced to leave due to untenable conditions are called migrants, while those whose leaving is a luxury and an escape to paradise and the good life are called expats. Where is our empathy and where is our outrage? How many more women and girls will be killed, go missing, be assaulted and exploited? All forms of violence are connected; when will we acknowledge the links between xenophobic violence, structural violence, and gender based violence?

Karyn Diaz is a Trinidadian scholar, writer, educator, and activist. She’s a graduate student at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and Project Coordinator for the “Thrive Together: Refugee Rights Campaign” with WOMANTRA.

Angelique V. Nixon is a Bahamas-born, Trinidad-based writer, artist, scholar, and activist. She is a lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and a director of the feminist LGBTI civil society organisation CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice, Trinidad and Tobago.

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  • Dennis Albert  On 12/10/2020 at 6:54 am

    De oil money almost done Trinidad.

    Now wait for many Trinis to smuggle themselves illegally into the ABCEU countries. There is no money to give to the Trinis and crime is terrible.

    The bigots in Trinidad are nomadic people who have loyalty to their own people since the days of the British Raj. They are loyal to Asia and no one else.

    Now look here—If Haiti discovered oil, many Trinis and Guyanese of PPP descent will overstay their tourist visa while being loyal to a foreign country.

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