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Mythbusting Xenophobic Stereotypes in Trinidad and Tobago

By Judy Liverpool

As a country that prides itself on inclusion and diversity, where it’s even mentioned in our national anthem, “where every creed and race find an equal place”, there are many stereotypes that are fueled by xenophobia and to some extent racism. This is not to say that xenophobia is only a problem in Trinidad and Tobago, in fact it is a worldwide issue that needs to be addressed through the lenses of intersectionality. Debunking myths that are underpinned by violence and discrimination can combat the dangers that many migrants face because of it. Migrants are not the stereotype created by xenophobia and racism, migrants are educated, they do not bring diseases, and they do not spread COVID-19 any more than their host population.

Myth- Migrants are uneducated and unskilled.

Truth- The idea that migrants are uneducated or unskilled is unsupported. In fact, migrants, prior to leaving their home countries, led their very own lives, careers, and schooling prior. Many migrants arrive with skills that fill their host country’s labour shortages whereas others are well studied in specialized fields which may be in high demand or can help specific sectors with their backgrounds and wealth of experience.  Unfortunately, many countries do not have the social infrastructure in place to facilitate employment within their fields of expertise and schooling. In addition to this, many of the migrants within Trinidad and Tobago instead become employed at vocational or manual jobs while some end up homeless.

Even those with skill sets in highly respected fields such as Leidys Dejong who was a medical doctor in her home country according to the article, ‘Venezuelan Doctor Homeless in Trinidad’ written by The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian Newspaper. Although the temporary work permits provided by the government to documented migrants, many have been deeply affected by the harmful stereotype that migrants are spreading COVID-19 as well as the various lockdowns experienced in Trinidad and Tobago. Countries must ensure that there is proper legislation that guides the integration of migrant workers into society’s functioning as we move towards an equal and gender just world. 

Myth- Migrants bring in foreign diseases.

Truth- Because of the stigma which grew out of the 1980s surrounding “sick immigrants” these stereotypes took root in legislation which barred many newcomers in America with the 1981 Immigration Act. In light of this there was a push to implement racially based immigartion laws by those who tried to uphold racial hierarchy and white supremacy. One such law was the Chinese Exclusion Act that was backed by those who blamed the spread of diseases on people of colour. At the time, racists and many white supremacists spread propaganda as it was plausible to blame migrants who were escaping poverty and dangers in their countries of origin as being sick, upon examination of their weary conditions. This myth directly supports the stereotypes created through the lenses of xenophobia and racism. Infact, migrants are more likely to contract diseases in their host populations often due to poor living conditions. As seen in many of the host countries worldwide, migrants may not have access to sanitary living conditions, putting them at risk of contracting a disease instead of spreading them.

Acknowledging that there needs to be institutional as well as individual change as the host population is the first step to fixing the problem. There are currently no set laws which have been implemented to protect migrants in Trinidad and Tobago. By investing in the basic needs like healthcare and housing, the country can provide resources that can be accessed by migrants such as sanitary and affordable living conditions as well as free or affordable healthcare.

Myth- Migrants spread COVID-19.

Truth- Migrants are no more likely to have or spread COVID-19 than others in their host population. However, immigrants at detention centres are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and not receive treatment while there. Those who are not at these centres also experience difficulties accessing health care. Many migrants are barred from accessing healthcare. According to an article written by The New Humanitarian, with the increasing displays of xenophobia since 2018, there have been asylum seekers held in detention centres in Trinidad. In 2020, the spike of COVID-19 cases in Trinidad and Tobago was said to be as a result of an influx of migrants into the country b. By placing the blame on the so-called “outsider” the country removes itself and its people from taking responsibility for the management of the spread of the virus. This blame game can fuel those with xenophobic ideas to engage in violence against migrants, reduce the accessibility of healthcare due to possible increased discrimination among the staff within the health care system, and displacement due to landlords withholding rentals. The International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), states that out of 950 Venezuelan migrants who participated in DTM 2020, the area with the largest number of respondents was Arima followed by Couva,Tabaquite, and Talparo in Trinidad.

Myth- Mirants spread STDs/ STIs

Truth- The likelihood of migrants spreading infectious diseases to their population is very low. In fact, the Report on the Health of Refugees and Migrants in the WHO European Regiondone by the World Health Organization, states that migrants, including those that originated from countries with high HIV rates, got the infection after arriving in their host country. Due to limited health care access, migrants were also more likely to be diagnosed at later stages in their HIV infection. Similarly, the status of being a migrant and the fear of being deported go hand in hand and many immigrants are exposed to sexual exploitation within their host population.

Evidently there is a lot of stigma attached to migrants and affects their mobility regarding access to healthcare. A study by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) explains that many migrants may be denied healthcare. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that access to healthcare is a fundamental human right for all, so what can be done to build migrant-friendly healthcare systems? It certainly can start with combating xenophobia concerning migratory status.

These discriminatory ideas not only exist in the social circles of societies but it can also exist via the staff of many of the already available or potential resources for migrants seeking help in host populations. The fear of being deported for simply accessing a basic need should not exist in healthcare systems that claim to be universal.

To dispel the possible fears and discrimination in a host society, the workforce within the healthcare system should be trained to be culturally competent and willing to give appropriate and accurate information regardless of one’s migratory status.

For efficient communication, migrants as well as local citizens with the foreign language competency should be employed for communication to be inclusive and accessible. Finally, implementation of government policies should be made to aid in migrant mobility regardless of nationality or migratory status.

References

For centuries, migrants have been said to pose public health risks. They don’t. By The World staff https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-05-23/centuries-migrants-have-been-said-pose-public-health-risks-they-don-t

Healthcare is not universal if undocumented migrants are excluded BMJ 2019; 366 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4160 (Published 16 September 2019) https://www.bmj.com/content/366/bmj.l4160

Immigration Detention and Covid-19 by Brennan Center for Justice https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/immigration-detention-and-covid-19

Report on the Health of Refugees and Migrants in the WHO European Region by the World Health Organization. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311347/9789289053846-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

STUDIES SHOW FEARS ABOUT MIGRATION AND DISEASE ARE UNFOUNDED by JACK HERRERA https://psmag.com/news/studies-show-fears-about-migration-and-disease-are-unfounded

Trinidad and Tobago — Monitoring Venezuelan Citizens Presence, Round 3 (December 2020) by International Organization for Migration (IOM). https://dtm.iom.int/reports/trinidad-and-tobago-%E2%80%94-monitoring-venezuelan-citizens-presence-round-3-december-2020

Venezuelan doctor homeless in Trinidad by Radhica De Silva of Guardian Newspaper. https://www.guardian.co.tt/news/venezuelan-doctor-homeless-in-trinidad-6.2.1329431.c6a62aaafd

Virus cases are surging at crowded immigration detention centers in the U.S. by The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/06/us/covid-immigration-detention.html

Judy Liverpool is a language and literature graduate who teaches English as a Second Language and is deeply passionate about feminist issues.

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