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Ceremonie of ‘Swit Watra’ in de Palementuin in Paramaribo. Photo: ATV-Networks/Wikimedia Commons

Indigenous people in the Caribbean. Novel study prepared by IOM

16 March, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

At the beginning of the year 2023, the International Organization for Migration published the study entitled Invisible Movements: Recommendations for Facilitating the Cross-Border Migration of Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean [1].

Through an unusual approach, the report deepens the understanding of cross-border migration experiences of indigenous peoples within the Caribbean region, with a particular focus on the countries of Belize, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago, identifiyng seven main aspects that defined the experiences of indigenous peoples: citizenship and birth registration, travel documents, education, labour, healthcare, violence against women and girls, and language barriers.

The report states that indigenous peoples were the first settlers of the Caribbean region: indigenous peoples of Wayana in Suriname, French Guiana and Brazil have inhabited their territories for more than 4000 years. The establishment of European colonies, as well their subsequent decolonization to become independent States, created arbitrary borders that divided previously unified indigenous lands. This separation has often forced various indigenous groups to abide by the administrative rules of more than one single country and between country borders.

Belize (17.4% of total population), Guyana (10.5%)  and Suriname (3.8%)  are home to some of the largest surviving populations of indigenous peoples in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago, is the oldest settled island of the Caribbean region, and it is marked by a small number of indigenous peoples. Other Caribbean countries still inhabited by indigenous groups include Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

There are many challenges to safe border-crossing of indigenous peoples and their access to basic services such as language barriers hinder their access to information and to public health and social protection services. Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean also suffer discrimination and exclusion, resulting in greater vulnerability. Furthermore, an IOM research study found that this population was statistically more likely of having to migrate as a result of natural disasters and that institutional response frameworks often do not include specific considerations to assist and respond to their needs.

Among its conclusions, the study indicates that the cross-border migration is a need for indigenous groups because It is part of their cultural identity, and they need to move to visit family or friends, to access work and other important services. Therefore, it is recommended that States prioritize policies, programmes and systems that allow for regular cross-border movement of indigenous peoples.

[1] International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2023. Invisible Movements: Recommendations for Facilitating the Cross-Border Migration of Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean. IOM: Geneva https://kmhub.iom.int/en/virtual-library/invisible-movements-recommendation-facilitating-cross-border-migration-indigenous