Having traversed hills, crossed rivers and trekked through thick jungles to escape their civil war–torn nation, hordes of refugees are met with forbidding rifles rather than the warm embrace they’d hoped was waiting. This was not the nation they’d been told was built by immigrants — a diverse, multicultural hub of the region. No, this is not America. It’s Guyana. Just not the Guyana that their ancestors may have known.
Much like America to the north, Guyana has been a melting pot of Asian and Latin American influences for more than a century. A former British colony that gained independence in 1966, modern Guyana was largely built with the help of generations of Indian indentured laborers. Their descendants, now known as East Indians, make up 40 percent of the population, while Afro-Guyanese — descendants of African slaves — comprise 30 percent. Groups of Indian, African, European, Chinese and indigenous heritage are all prominent.
Now, a sharp uptick in overstaying Haitian, Cuban and Venezuelan immigrants — propelled by the economic and political crises in their home countries — is dividing Guyana with a heated debate on whether the resource-strapped nation can sustain open borders. While 16 percent (7,255 out of 44,747) of Cubans who entered Guyana in 2017 have overstayed, that number rose to 27 percent (6,170 out of 22,520 visitors) in the first four months of 2018. It’s worse with Haitians. In 2017, 3,515 arrived and only 291 — or 8 percent — left. And between January and April 2018, only 85 of the 1,238 who arrived — 7 percent — left. A flood of Venezuelan immigrants, many of whom crossed over illegally, has added additional pressure this year on Guyana, which was warm to them, then cold and is now lukewarm.
Guyana is being used as a transshipment point for a large and well-organized human trafficking ring.
Gail Teixeira, opposition member of Parliament
The opposition, led by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), is warning that the numbers suggest the country’s use as a human trafficking hub, a charge that isn’t helping proponents of immigration. The PPP has also accused the government of regularizing the stay of illegal immigrants in exchange for votes in the country’s 2020 elections. But religious and civil society groups are demanding the country take immigrants in on humanitarian grounds. And the government has rejected charges that it was seeking to bolster its voter base, instead pointing to the difficulty in managing Guyana’s borders, which run through a river, a sea and dense forests. The Corentyne River serves as Guyana’s border with Suriname to the east, with the Caribbean Sea to the north and heavy jungle bordering Brazil and Venezuela to the south and west, respectively. A further complication? Guyana is also engaged in border disputes with both Suriname and Venezuela.
“People can enter and leave from any backyard in the Corentyne,” says Guyana Minister of Citizenship Winston Felix, in a statement issued on July 19.
Guyana’s clearest response in 2018 so far has been to the waves of Venezuelan immigrants. Guyana’s 500-mile border with Venezuela is almost entirely thick jungle, but the country was still seeing an influx of Venezuelan soldiers searching for food, and civilians seeking resources and medical assistance while attempting to sell whatever they could. The country set up two army bases on the jungle frontier, with Guyana President David Granger calling the border town of Kaikan the “front line” to fend off “incursion and invasion.”
Those strong words aren’t dissimilar to the warlike language U.S. President Donald Trump has used on border security. But in many ways, Guyana’s current position is closer to that of Germany, where another wobbly government is under pressure from the opposition to appear hard on immigration. In Guyana’s 65-member National Assembly, the government alliance has only a sliver of a majority, with 33 parliamentarians, one more than the PPP.
But many citizens and civil society groups are concerned that a harsh crackdown on region migrants would amount to a betrayal of what Guyana, despite being South America’s third-poorest nation, has long stood for. “Guyana has always been considered an extended member of the Caribbean family,” says Cory Bishop, a St. Croix native and founder of Forgotten Lands, an art collective of Caribbean creative personalities. “They’re mainland South American, but there’s connected cultures and shared experience between the islands and the northern mainland.” The Roman Catholic Church of Guyana and humanitarian groups like the Amerindian Peoples Association have protested the government’s moves to deport, jail and fine illegal immigrants while calling for humanitarian procedures to help those in need.
The threat of trafficking isn’t one that can be ignored though, the opposition is arguing. In an open letter in June, PPP member of Parliament Gail Teixeira — who heads the National Assembly’s foreign relations committee — said it was unclear if many of the overstaying visitors were still actually in Guyana. “The most logical explanation is that Guyana is being used as a transshipment point for a large and well-organized human trafficking ring,” she wrote.
America’s tightening of its borders “have an immediate impact” on Guyana too, the director of the country’s Foreign Service Institute, Ambassador Ronald Austin, said in 2017. It suggests that the U.S. is less receptive to the Guyanese and other South American and Caribbean visitors. But it may also have made Guyana even more of a target for migrants in need of shelter.
Especially with Venezuelan refugees, Guyana’s tune has flip-flopped. Felix’s ministry announced plans in April to assist destitute Venezuelans. Then in June — when another few hundred Venezuelans crossed into Guyana — the government told anyone claiming Guyanese ancestry that they won’t be able to stay in the country without proper documentation of citizenship and nationality. Venezuela’s decades-old claim over Guyanese border territory hasn’t helped. In July, though, the government said it was committed to building democratic principles and sees an effective immigration policy as integral to good governance.
The outcome of that apparent tussle playing within Guyana — and indeed, within its government — could shape the future of a diverse nation built on the backs of immigrants. In May, marking the 180th anniversary of Indian indentured laborers to the country, Granger applauded the migrant community, noting that his country is richer and better off due to their contributions.
“Guyana is now and always will be multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious,” said Granger. “Our diversity is an asset, not a liability.”
For Granger, then, it seems the asset is controlled diversity.
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