By Gregory Scruggs
PORT OF SPAIN, July 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Underneath a sign reading "Jesus was a refugee", a line of Venezuelan asylum seekers 30 people long stretches in front of a Catholic church in Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain.
They have fled their homeland, where a political crisis and crippling recession have left people in the once-prosperous South American country jobless, battling poverty, and struggling with chronic shortages of food, medicine and other essentials.
Miguel Vegas, 39, was an ambulance driver in Aragua state. He left after armed men hijacked his vehicle and held a gun to his head for a ride across town.
Last August, he flew to Trinidad, began working in construction and applied for asylum.
He and his wife, a former healthcare worker, sat on the curb with their two sons, waiting for Living Water Community, Trinidad's reception centre for refugee and asylum applicants, to open.
"We just want permission to work. We want to pay taxes," Vegas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I'm simply looking for a basic quality of life for my future, which is my kids."
The family are among about 3,300 Venezuelans who had petitioned for asylum in Trinidad and Tobago as of April - more than in any other Caribbean country, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
The twin-island nation is an increasingly popular destination for middle-class Venezuelans looking for a fast exit, as it is just a 30-minute flight from the eastern part of their country or a couple of hours by boat.
Once in Trinidad, a stable oil and gas-producing state with the highest per-capita GDP in the region, many don't look back.
"I'm a refugee in the sense that I don't want to return to Venezuela," Vegas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I can't deal with the unemployment, the crime, the abandonment."
Whether Trinidad wants them is less clear.
The nation faces the existential question of whether a small island can absorb significant numbers of refugees.
Despite signing onto the U.N. Refugee Convention in 2000, the country has yet to adopt an asylum law.
In April, the government deported 82 Venezuelans in a move the UNHCR called "a breach of international law".
Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley bristled at the criticism. He told local media his country was "a little island" with limited space and 1.3 million people, and could not be turned into "a refugee camp" by the United Nations.
Trinidadian independent researcher Michele Reis said the country has "systematically failed to have an adequate migration policy", despite its multi-cultural demographics reflecting historic waves of newcomers, from European colonisers to enslaved Africans and indentured Indian labour.
LIFE IN LIMBO
By the end of 2017, more than 1.5 million of Venezuela's 30 million people had moved into neighbouring countries and beyond, according to the UNHCR. As of mid-July, roughly 858,300 had sought asylum or residency abroad, it said.
In May, President Nicolas Maduro won re-election in a vote the Venezuelan opposition, United States and other Latin American nations decried as a sham, cementing an autocracy that has devastated the economy.
Hyper-inflation and a free-fall in the value of the bolivar currency against the dollar have left the minimum wage equal to just a handful of dollars a month.
That kind of economic instability prompted environmental engineer Andrea Rojas, 32, to call a cousin who had lived in Trinidad for decades and fly over on a tourist visa in 2016.
She began quietly working in his coffee shop, relying on a barista course she had taken to sling lattes.
"I can pay my rent, eat (and) other things that I can't do in Venezuela," she said on a break before a second evening shift at a restaurant.
In March, unable to renew a student visa for English classes, she joined the line-up seeking asylum papers at Living Water, which declined to comment for this story.
But the white piece of paper with the UNHCR logo she carries around, certifying her asylum application, does not give her legal permission to work. Nor does it offer security, especially since the April deportations, which included asylum seekers.
"(Trinidadians) think we are prostitutes, we bring drugs, guns, that sort of thing," Rojas said.
Rooms in or near neighbourhoods where educated Venezuelans work in restaurants and bars rent for about 1,500 Trinidad and Tobago dollars ($226) per month, with migrants living up to five per room to save money.
Rojas hopes eventually to move on to Argentina or Spain. "My life is on standby," she said.
'WORSE THAN DOGS'
UNHCR spokeswoman Sibylla Brodzinsky said her agency was working closely with the Trinidad and Tobago government and civil society to help the country develop its asylum system.
Draft legislation, pending presentation to parliament, includes protection for asylum seekers and refugees, while affording rights like employment and education, she said.
Trinidadian lawyer Shalini Sankar said it would be a vast improvement over the status quo, which treats asylum seekers as criminals who have illegally entered the country.
They can be punished with a fine of up to TTD 50,000 or five years in jail, even though such penalties violate international law, said Sankar, who has represented dozens of Venezuelan asylum seekers pro-bono.
She has documented other abuses such as police tearing up asylum papers, detainees being kept in prisons where the UNHCR and Living Water cannot visit, and the government denying the right to appeal detention.
"They are treating them worse than dogs," said Sankar.
The Ministry of National Security, which oversees immigration, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Even as Trinidad prepares to put in place a formal asylum process, residents are sceptical about the Venezuelan arrivals.
"They're taking up room," said musician Kareem McPherson in a downtown Port of Spain restaurant.
He expressed worry about Venezuelans taking jobs as Trinidad and Tobago starts to climb out of a recession following a global collapse in petroleum prices, which began in 2014.
Trinidad Minister of Planning and Development Camille Robinson-Regis said her country's small size is an issue.
"We have to be very cautious about Venezuelans ... putting any pressure on the social and medical services," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But as one of the Caribbean's larger islands, Trinidad may be better placed to absorb Venezuelans than other islands in the region, such as Curacao, Aruba or Dominican Republic.
"There are some islands that are facing real challenges in trying to absorb the number of people that are coming in," said the UNHCR's Brodzinsky.
Migration expert Reis said Trinidad has the potential to take in more people because its birth rate is falling and some of its own people are leaving.
Besides, she said, Trinidad - a Spanish colony for 300 years - has centuries-old ties to its continental neighbour.
"When you hear people uttering 'What are all these Venezuelans doing here?', well, the reality is they've always been here," she said. ($1 = 6.6500 Trinidad & Tobago dollars) (Reporting by Gregory Scruggs; additional reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/)
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