On Saturday night, something extremely tragic happened off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago.
A boat filled with fleeing Venezuelans, hoping to make it to the shores of T&T, was intercepted by the twin-island republic’s Coast Guard. The sea officers opened fire and a nine-month-old baby was killed in her mother’s arms.
In a statement, the Coast Guard said its personnel had opened fire “in self-defence” after “aggressive manoeuvres” by the migrant craft when it was intercepted as it entered Trinidadian waters late on Saturday.
When crewmen boarded the vessel, they found a group of migrants who had been hiding, including “one adult female who was holding an infant and who she indicated was bleeding . . . . Regrettably, the infant was found unresponsive,” the statement said.
Trinidad Prime Minister Keith Rowley offered condolences.
“I express my deepest sympathy on my own behalf and of all the people of Trinidad and Tobago with respect to the unfortunate loss of life of the baby,” he said.
Human rights activists swiftly called for a thorough investigation of the incident.
“Opening fire on fleeing migrants and asylum seekers that have identified themselves as such would be an atrocity,” said Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (Wola), a think tank.
“This needs a thorough investigation into not only the circumstances around the child’s death but also a migration system that apparently allows the use of deadly force and routinely violates Venezuelans’ right to seek asylum.”
On Tuesday, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro gave the order to activate all diplomatic mechanisms and establish “the necessary binational protocols to consolidate the cross-border security dynamics that preserve good understanding” between the countries. His government demanded a full investigation and justice.
“The Venezuelan Government extends its most sincere condolences to the infant’s relatives, while urging the Trinidad and Tobago authorities to carry out an exhaustive investigation to clarify the facts surrounding this fatal incident in which, unfortunately, a Venezuelan child [died],” said the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry in a statement.
On Monday, hundreds of Venezuelans gathered in front of the Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago in Caracas to demand justice.
Fuelling the fire was PM Rowley’s statement that the Coast Guard carried out “reasonable and professional orders under international protocols and law”.
But Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar saw it differently, as she berated the Coast Guard for the shooting.
Trinidadians have threatened the Coast Guard and called them “murderers”, causing the army to go on high alert.
But the most sobering and level voice was that of the United Nations.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF both expressed their sadness on hearing the news.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and convey our heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones who are grieving this loss, and a speedy recovery to the injured. Nobody should have to lose their life in their search for safety, protection and new opportunities,” said Dr Eduardo Stein, Joint Special Representative of UNHCR and IOM for Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
He added: “This incident highlights the plight faced by people on the move during desperate and dangerous journeys to safety.”
Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean said: “No migrant child should ever die, whether travelling with their parents or alone. No mother wants to put the lives of her children at risk on a small ship in the deep sea, unless she has no other option.”
And, like the voices of the UN representatives, we too feel strongly that no human, far less a child, should lose his or her life while fleeing as a refugee. It is as atrocious as the United States border patrol officers abusing the Haitians who were seeking refuge in Texas in September last year.
We understand that the act of entering another country illegally is a crime. But, no one should ever have to pay for such a crime with his or her life.
Migration has been a part of the history of almost all people across the world and especially us here in the Caribbean. West Indians can be found in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East.
People leave their homeland in search of better. Their very earthly existence might depend on their departure. They don’t always start out on the right legal footing but they go to other countries and are law-abiding, hard-working individuals contributing to the overall growth. In many migrant cases, those fleeing only want the opportunity to provide for their families and ease their burdens.
In some cases, persons are fleeing oppressive leadership and harsh regimes. Whatever the reasons, truth is, it goes both ways. We want to protect our borders, as is our right, but then we have some of our citizens in other countries seeking the same thing these migrants at the edge of our borders are looking for — better.
We hope that such a tragic and unfortunate incident in Caribbean waters between Caribbean neighbours, will never be repeated.