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(By Lear Matthews)
Some concerns may be emerging in Guyana as a result of the stream of refugees from Venezuela and the related uptick in the “Squatting situation”. This is compounded by the entry of immigrants from other countries, many under government contract or unclassified Entrants. In light of anticipated changes that will emerge in the dawning of the gas and oil industry, issues of adjustment, accommodation and populations shifts caused by these new entrants must be seriously considered. There have been grumblings among Guyanese about the increasing number of immigrant families “admitted” into the country, whom locals uncannily refer to as “the silent invaders”. A report by the Chairperson of Region One confirmed that about 40,000 Venezuelans were in the country in 2019. As a result of these entries, immigrant settlements have been established along border communities such as Mabaruma and Kumaka, notwithstanding the noticeable increase of various transnational groups throughout the nation.
This article briefly examines immigrant settlement, transitory patterns and related socio-economic realities, which have not been given enough attention. Implications for policy and strategic planning are considered. This is particularly important at a time of imminent development of the new energy sector, threatened to some degree by the uncertainty of lingering post-election concerns and upended by the unpredictable impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seemingly minimally regulated, the social, economic and political repercussions of managing the resettlement of refugees in particular, can heighten tensions among the local population, government officials and the new settlers. Political squabbling such as linking refugees and other immigrants to efforts to inflate voting constituents has already emerged. So too are accusations of favoring foreign settlers for certain occupations.
The number of Brazilians have also grown incrementally, while their immigration status appears to be vaguely defined. Indications are that the Brazilians and Chinese who seem to have a curious footprint in the country, are well-entrenched and invested in Guyanese civic society and business sector in particularly. The Chinese tend to be temporary labor migrants. However, their business conglomerates finance and provide the labor force for numerous infrastructure development projects. The latter include the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Skeldon Sugar Estate Modernization Project, One Laptop Per Family, and the Fiber Optics Cable Project. These may be well-intended, strategic developmental business contracting. However, they could be poised to influence or even manipulate the nation’s communication system based on hinterland project agreements which grant them good faith “mining permits”.
With noticeable increases of new arrivals in some geographic Regions, to what extent are ‘foreign’ groups becoming embedded in the nation’s socio-cultural fabric? It is noteworthy that their immigration status is generally not clearly defined, leading to vulnerability to become victims or perpetrators of fraud and other violations.
Guyana is required to refer all refugee cases to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Although it can be assumed that this is being done, their sojourn into Guyana appears to be inadequately managed and not informed by well-articulated decisions and immigration policies including border security. Collectively, these non-descript conditions are likely to cause resentment, skepticism and an unwelcoming attitude toward “outsiders”. There has been criticism regarding differential treatment of Haitians compared to other refugees, while the Amerindian Peoples Association has called for the provision of humanitarian support for Venezuelan migrants. The increasing settlement of refugees and other immigrants could conceivably result in the surge of political support for one political party or another, albeit cultivating another layer of interethnic competition and conflict.
The Guyanese diaspora is quite familiar with the implications of one’s immigration status in host societies. The use of terms such as Alien, nativism and foreigner have historically been used to discriminate and exploit, inflaming transnational relationships. The tenets of multiculturalism and diversity have their merits. However, the presence of foreign multiethnic groups with their own set of values, a different language and unconventional needs could foment anxiety, cause new challenges and misunderstandings, making adaptation and host accommodation difficult. It will take some time for the local population to fully adjust to the influx of new immigrant groups. Public perception and “feelings” do matter. The reception of refuges and other immigrants is likely to vary from welcoming to resentment. If there is credence to the view among Guyanese that some “foreigners” are granted more privileges than ‘locals’ in certain sectors, this could exacerbate xenophobic attitudes. In short, conditions for further tension may be brewing.
When local host communities observe the accretion of “outsiders” whose entry is not announced or for whom they are not adequately prepared, the manifestation of confusion, ambivalence, displeasure and distrust is likely to prevail among local residents. Increasingly, Guyanese will have to share scarce resources including jobs, housing, schools and health facilities (particularly problematic in the post COVID-19 pandemic). Vulnerability to human trafficking should also be a concern.
An interesting development is that intermarriage between Guyanese and
Venezuelans seem to have increased, poised to surpass intermarriage between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese. Some Guyanese have reportedly adopted the “taste” for Venezuelan (Spanish) cuisine over the long-standing attraction to Chinese food by a cross-section of the local population. It has also been reported that streets in Region Seven have been changed to reflect the increasing Spanish-speaking population. The inclusion of the Spanish-language classes in the education curriculum is significant as a regional demographic strategy.
There is clearly an argument for bolstering Guyana’s population size to meet expanding economic development and man power demands. The influx of refugees is not the most palpable way to fulfill that proposition, except after adjustment of their immigration status to permanent resident or citizen. It is important to differentiate the category of immigrants considered resourceful to Guyana, which in the past comprised of farmers and tradesmen from other Caribbean countries. Today they include foreign investors and workers skilled in the oil and gas industry, who are likely to be invited and welcomed by the government. Such persons may include diaspora re-migrants, who can fill the skills-gap and augment capacity building. The agreement with the Republic of Barbados to have a cadre of that nation’s youth establish farming communities in Guyana is an excellent idea. It is a good model for regional collaboration and development, particularly in response to the nation’s impending challenges.
Significantly, former University of Guyana Vice Chancellor, Dr. Ivlaw Griffith warns that there will be a need for strategic investment in public security to cope with the crime that is likely to increase as oil and economic deprivation in Proximate and far away neighborhoods attract people to Guyana. The University of Guyana pledges to deliver relevant, quality education in safety and security. Notably, more should be done for the reintegration of deportees, who are often blamed for the increase in crime.
The government’s choice of handling the immigrant/refugee situation will determine its legacy in the realm of humanitarian response to regional diplomatic relations. At the same time, the nation’s ability to safeguard the needs, rights and privileges of its own citizens will be tested. It is important to note that the number of youthful immigrants in Guyana has increased, causing some interesting variation in that segment of the population. Along with the fact that approximately 89% of tertiary educated Guyanese are known to have emigrated within the last ten years, this phenomenon should be noted, particularly in light of the expected growth projections in various sectors.
Evidence-based decision-making is the most reliable arbiter of effective policy decisions involving forged human resettlement and adaptation. Deconstructing the challenges of an ordered system of accountability and accommodation in response to what appears to be a groundswell of recent immigrants should be prioritized. With more than half of its population residing outside of the country, Guyana is more accustomed to sending than receiving immigrants. To maintain safety and sovereign integrity, there should be a deployment of adequate resources to Ports of Entry and areas of sizable immigrant enclaves.
Hopefully the attention given to the issues raised in this article will be decisive and expeditious, yet compassionate and empathetic. The government is encouraged to continuously seek to generate information about demographic shifts caused by new immigrant groups and the impact on institutional change. Failure to institute measures to streamline recent migration flows will be counterintuitive. The response to unprecedented demographic transformations and the effect on managing the newfound wealth could have an impact on the nation’s growth projections.