The US and Guyana have enjoyed friendly and cordial relations spanning many decades. Recently, countries with which the US enjoy such relations have been asked to consider accepting refugees from Afghanistan. Letters have appeared in the press for and against Guyana’s acceptance of Afghani refugees. There is a history to our country’s role in this matter. In 1934, the League of Nations, at the invitation of the British Government appointed a Commission to report on the possibility of settling a group of Assyrians in British Guiana’s Rupununi District. The Assyrians are the direct descendants of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Because of their support to the allied forces of Britain, France and Russia during the First World War the Assyrians were deemed collaborators. At the end of the war, they were subjected to atrocities, massacres and even denied their existence as a distinct ethnic group by some Arab and Turkish rulers. They were subsequently chased from their homeland. In exchange for their service to Britain, France and Russia they were promised a safe and independent homeland in Northern Iraq. That promise never materialized. It was around that period that Assyrian refugee migration began and continued up to the period leading up to World War Two.
The Commission established by the League of Nations believed that Assyrians should be able to maintain themselves in the Rupununi District by subsistence farming in smallholdings coupled with stock grazing. However, the Commission pointed out the lack of accurate knowledge of the agricultural possibilities of the savannahs and recommended investigation of the problems involved. No developments followed on their report. (Report of the Mission of Brigadier-General J.G.Browne and Doctor Guido Renzo Giglioli concerning the possibility of settling Assyrians in Britain Guiana (District of Rupununi).” February 1935.) In 1939, following Nazi persecution of Jews, the British Government made a tentative offer of land for the establishment of a Jewish settlement in British Guiana. Consequently, in the same year a joint American-British Refugee Commission was appointed by President Roosevelt to investigate the possibilities of establishing Jewish settlements in two areas; one, in the North-West District, and the other, in the area between the Essequibo and Courantyne rivers south of 5 degrees north, of latitude. That Commission found that these areas contained certain soils apparently suitable for permanent agriculture and natural resources for industrial development correlated with agriculture. The Commission found that both areas had a climate to which people of Central Europe should be able to adapt themselves. They therefore recommended the founding of trial settlements of 3,000 – 5,000 persons in selected localities under properly equipped technical and advisory organizations; and added that research and experiment should be directed at soil surveys and cognate matters.
Arrangements were being discussed to send out an advance party of 200 refugees to establish a trial settlement when the outbreak of the war put an end to further action (Report of the British Guiana Refugee Commission to the Advisory Committee on Political Refugees Appointed by the President of the United States of America.) In 1974, information leaked by the international press revealed that the Burnham government had agreed to establish a settlement for Hmong refugees in Guyana. The Hmong are an ethnic group of people who migrated from the southern provinces of China to the mountainous area of Laos where they settled and engaged in subsistence farming.
During the 1960 to 1975 liberation war waged by the Laotian patriotic forces, Hmong tribesmen were recruited as collaborators with CIA operatives in their ‘Secret War’ in support of the Royal Lao Government and against the Pathet Lao or Laotian liberation forces. The ‘Secret War’ eventually grew into the largest CIA operation in history. Following the victory by the Laotian liberation forces in 1975, the Hmong were forced to flee Laos. Thousands were accommodated in refugee camps in Canada, Australia and Europe. Approximately 260,000 were accepted by the US in recognition for the support they provided to the CIA against the Laotian people’s struggle for national and social liberation. The PPP opposed the settlement of Hmong refugees in Guyana on the ground that they would be used as they were in Laos as an anti-PPP force.
The government’s plan was to establish Hmong settlements in the Waini-Yarakita area in the North West District close to the Guyana-Venezuela border. The plan was to use the Hmong settlements as shields to prevent any encroachment by Venezuela on Guyana’s national territory. But the government’s plan was aborted in 1980 following a national outcry led by the PPP. About 2,500 Hmong people eventually ended up in French Guiana where they live in an isolated community producing fruit and vegetables. In 1974, the Burnham administration secretly granted permission to the People’s Temple led by Jim Jones, a self-proclaimed leader of a religious sect- to establish a settlement of about 900 American citizens who were followers of Jones. The settlement was established on approximately 3,800 acres of forested land at Port Kaituma in the North West District some 650 miles or 240 km from Georgetown. Once again, the Burnham administration chose, for what became known as Jonestown, a location near Guyana’s border with Venezuela, the area Venezuela describes as the ‘Zona de Reclamacion.’ According to Burnham’s calculations, the People’s Temple settlement would act as a deterrent to any territorial expansionist ambitions by Venezuela especially since it would be populated by hundreds of American citizens who the Americans would seek to protect at any cost and who the Venezuelans would hardly want to cause any harm.
Following the overthrow in 1991 of Jean Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected President of Haiti, thousands of Haitians fled the country. Others who did not have the means to leave sought help from the US administration to accept them as refugees. Apart from sanctions on the coup makers, the Clinton administration sought the support of CARICOM member states to establish ‘Safe Havens’ in their respective jurisdictions where Haitian refugees would be accommodated on a temporary basis. CARICOM Governments did not find favour with the request. Guyana for its part, was of the view that the answer was not to establish ‘Safe Havens’ but to create the necessary internal and external conditions that would allow for the restoration of democracy in Haiti and the re-instatement of President Aristide. Only one CARICOM member state agreed to establish a ‘Safe Haven.’ During the APNU+AFC coalition administration an unexpected and unexplained number of Haitians began arriving in Guyana. No plausible explanation was offered by the Government of Guyana. Suspicions and speculations were rampant so much so that a predominant view was that the Haitians were being registered to vote at the 2020 election. According to government of Guyana’s data, out of 42,000 Haitians who entered Guyana 2015 to 2021, only 3, 913 can be accounted for. Several hundred Haitians are spread across the country with many being employed in low-paying jobs principally in private security services. The new PPP/C Government has since backed away from visa free travel to Guyana for Haitian nationals and has imposed visa restrictions. The political, economic and social crisis in Venezuela forced thousands of Venezuelans to leave their country and head to other countries including neighboring Guyana for a better life.
It is estimated that currently there are approximately 23,000 highly vulnerable Venezuelan migrants and refugees who were granted stay permits across the ten administrative regions of the country. Only recently, government announced the enrollment of 740 Venezuelan children in public schools across the country. The settlement of Haitians and Venezuelans in Guyana was not the same in the case of the Assyrians, the Jews, the Hmong nor the followers of Jim Jones. In those cases, it was a question of persecution, racial and political discrimination coupled with calculated, formal and conscious decisions by governments to transport and settle the Assyrians, the Jews and the Hmong in Guyana. In the case of the Venezuelan and Haitians, it was more a question of economic hardships that forced the Haitians to travel to Guyana and for the Venezuelans to cross the Guyana/Venezuela border to seek refuge more as economic rather than political refugees. From historical and contemporary experiences, all things being equal, it is clear that Guyana has always been considered a favuorable location to house refugees and the settlement of migrants notwithstanding the fact that we are not a state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol.