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UN urges Caribbean nations to see benefits from surge in refugees

The United Nations is urging countries around the Caribbean to view the recent surge in refugees, from near and far, as a long-term benefit and not just a short-term challenge.

Ruben Barbado, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) agency, told journalists at the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) that many refugees, though fleeing under duress, can quickly by shifted into productive roles in host countries – if the countries receive them

“You have doctors, you have entrepreneurs, you have teachers, you have farmers and in that regard they can help the economy if they are allowed (to become) successful members of the society,” Barbado said.

More than 5,000 people came to various Caribbean nations last year seeking asylum, he said, representing a 257 percent increase in the number of asylum seekers between mid-2015 and mid-2016 for the region.

The UN official made his plea for a new mindset at a workshop for media professionals on “Refugee Protection in Trinidad and Tobago” last week. After Belize and the Dominican republic, he said, Trinidad and Tobago is the third most popular country for refugees in the region, with 400 new applications in the first six months of this year — a 40 per cent increase from 2016.

Government statistics indicate that the refugees are coming from neighboring nations in the region, such as Cuba and Haiti, as well as from other more far-flung countries including Colombia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Nigeria.

Other speakers at the event stressed the need for domestic legislation in Trinidad and Tobago to address the surge in refugees, according to the CMC. They said asylum seekers in the dual-island country face numerous barriers to successful resettlement, such as detention, being irregular/undocumented, uncertainty over being resettled, lack of access to healthcare, lack of ability to work and access education.

Education at the primary and secondary levels are free to the public in Trinidad and Tobago, but officials have admitted there were barriers for many refugee children such as the ability to speak and understand English, CMC reported.

The increase of refugees into the Caribbean may be significant for low-resource host countries, but it is marginal compared to the refugee crisis on a global scale. In recent years, a series of conflicts around the world has left governments grappling with some 66 million displaced persons — the highest number seen since World War II.

The crisis is straining governments around the world with massive populations of refugees they are either unwilling or unable to take in. Jordan, with a population of just over 6 million people, is now home to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. Turkey, with a population of 76 million, has taken in 2.5 million.

The internal strife in South Sudan has become the source of the fastest-growing displacement crisis in the world, turning the country into the third-biggest source of refugees abroad last year, behind Syria (5.5 million) and Afghanistan (2.5 million).

Nearly all of the biggest refugee hosts are developing countries, according to data from the UNHCR.

IMAGE: Cuban refugees rescued at sea in 2014. (Wikimedia: Andrew Smith)

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