Discovery of Oil Could Bring Migrant Labor Opportunities and Climate Displacement Challenges for Guyana
Located in South America, though culturally and politically grouped with countries in the Caribbean, Guyana is increasingly becoming a migrant destination, both for neighboring Venezuelans fleeing their country’s ongoing socioeconomic and humanitarian crisis, and for skilled migrants granted free movement under the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Single Market and Economy agreement. The discovery of vast offshore crude oil deposits beginning in 2015 has made Guyana, which has a domestic population of approximately 800,000, the fastest-growing economy in the world, on track to replace Kuwait as the world’s largest oil producer per capita.
Migrant labor and the return of some of the sizeable Guyanese diaspora—with about 550,000 nationals abroad, the country has one of the world’s highest emigration rates—could help sustain Guyana’s economic growth by filling demographic and skills shortages in the local population. It remains to be seen, though, whether labor needs will prompt the development of more formal migration pathways and holistic immigrant integration programming, or whether it will contribute to the socioeconomic disparity dominant in oil-producing countries around the world.
Simultaneously, given that 90 percent of the country’s population resides in coastal areas below sea level, environmental experts have raised alarm that the exploration of new, massive oil deposits could accelerate the impacts of climate change on Guyana’s infrastructure and agriculture, potentially leading to mass internal displacement.
This article examines the policies and conditions shaping migration in Guyana today and what the country’s anticipated economic changes given a huge oil windfall may mean for these trends moving forward.
From Country of Emigration to One of Immigrant Destination?
Though Guyana’s history as first a Dutch and later a British colony was marked by the importation of enslaved Africans and indentured servants from India, descendants of whom make up most of the Guyanese population today (29.2 percent and 39.8 percent respectively, according to the country’s most recent census figures), the post-independence period has seen extremely high emigration. More than 55 percent of Guyanese nationals have left the country for destinations abroad.
Following Guyana’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, immigration to the country dropped, from approximately 13,500 in 1965 to 4,100 in 1990—a result of more restrictive border policies in the decolonization period and sustained economic hardship in the 1980s and early 1990s. At the same time, emigration, especially to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, surged—shaped by the political and economic volatility of the 1980s and 1990s, relatively open channels in North America for skilled migrants, and later family migration opportunities. This emigration represents a sizable share of the country’s skilled workforce, with 90 percent of Guyanese with tertiary-level education and 40 percent of those with a secondary education living and working abroad. This brain drain, viewed with alarm within the country, is mitigated to an extent by the personal remittances sent by emigrants and others to families and friends in Guyana. In 2005, remittances made up nearly 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). With the rise in oil exploration, however, the importance of remittances to the country’s economic wellbeing appears to be falling; in 2019, remittances made up just 7 percent of Guyana’s GDP.
Venezuelans in Guyana
Given Guyana’s recent history as a primarily migrant-sending country, its migration infrastructure is fairly nascent. Amid the ongoing deterioration of social, political, economic, and humanitarian conditions in neighboring Venezuela, where more than 6 million people have left the country since 2014, Guyana has experienced increasing Venezuelan arrivals since 2018. The Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP) estimates that as of May 2022, 24,500 Venezuelan migrants were resident in Guyana, totaling approximately 3 percent of the country’s overall population. Most Venezuelan migrants enter Guyana by sea or river and are concentrated in the populous host communities of Port Kaituma, Marbaruma, and Bartica. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 2,500 Venezuelans in Guyana are of the Warao indigenous group.
Venezuelan migrants in Guyana are among the most vulnerable, with their education and employment levels pre-migration far below those of their counterparts who have headed to Peru, Ecuador, Chile, or Argentina, for example. While most Venezuelans hold temporary legal status, 75 percent of those surveyed for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) in 2021 worked in the informal economy and tend to be concentrated in sectors with low pay and difficult working conditions, including in informal commerce (54 percent), construction (18 percent), and domestic work (7 percent).
Figure 1. Map of Guyana and its Administrative Regions
In response to the rise in Venezuelan migration, Guyana in 2018 established an interagency body called the Multi-Agency Coordinating Committee for Addressing the Influx of Venezuelan Migrants into Guyana. This committee, comprised of representatives of UN agencies such as IOM and UNHCR along with government agencies such as the Immigration Department and ministries including Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and Human Services and Social Security, is responsible for coordinating the country’s approach to Venezuelan arrivals.
Though Guyana does not have a national asylum and refugee law or a government-led asylum procedure, it has established an open-door policy allowing unrestricted entry of Venezuelans on humanitarian grounds at ports of entry and the provision of an extension of stay status that is renewable every three months, with no restriction on the number of renewals permitted. As a result of this approach, Venezuelans in Guyana have higher regularization rates than in some neighboring countries, with only 13 percent reporting having an irregular status as of 2021, according to the IOM DTM. Nonetheless, local civil-society representatives note that the requirement to renew the extension of stay every three months can cause logistical hurdles for migrants, especially those living in remote areas, who must gather extensive paperwork, miss work, and travel long distances to renew their status. Moreover, the migrant support project coordinator for the Roman Catholic Bishop in Guyana (RCBG) said migrants in some cases have been asked to pay a fee of around 5,000 Guyanese dollars each (equivalent to approximately USD 24) to renew their extensions of stay. There are also few procedures allowing Venezuelans to transition from temporary status to long-term residency.
CARICOM Nationals and Free Movement
Though much attention has centered on recent Venezuelan in-migration, most arrivals to Guyana come from the Caribbean, mainly from Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Barbados, and Haiti (country-specific data are scarce, however). In fact, nationals of most CARICOM Member States (except for Haiti) are entitled to free movement, with an automatic six-month stay on arrival. Further, these CARICOM nationals can be granted an indefinite stay in a CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) state, once they are identified as being within a defined skills category, such as university graduates, members of the media, athletes, musicians, registered nurses, trained teachers, and the self-employed. Though this free movement was established in 2001, it was not until recently that migrants from these countries began coming to Guyana in significant numbers, in part a result of improving economic prospects. Caribbean arrivals recorded at Guyanese ports of entry more than doubled between 2013 and 2018, rising from 51,942 to 137,433.
Haitians and Cubans in Guyana
For Haitians and Cubans, the situation is slightly different due to the socioeconomic crises in their home countries. Although Haiti is a CARICOM Member State, Haitian nationals do not enjoy free movement within the CSME policy. In 2018, the Guyanese government removed visa restrictions for Haitians. This policy shift resulted in a significant increase in Haitian arrivals, from 770 in 2015 to 8,476 as of July 2019. In June 2021, the government reinstituted visa requirements for Haitians due to growing concerns of unchecked migration.
While Cuba is not a CARICOM Member State, a growing number of Cubans have traveled to Guyana since 2012, particularly with the removal of visa restrictions, increased flights to Guyana with connections to Latin America, and the U.S. Embassy in Guyana being designated the visa processing center for Cuban nationals after the U.S. government sharply scaled back its operations in Havana in 2017. Guyana in 2022 reinstated visa restrictions for Cuban nationals in response to ongoing entry requirements enforced by Cuba towards Guyanese nationals.
For many Cubans and Haitians arriving in Guyana, the country is a transit point to other destinations, including French Guiana and Brazil for Haitians, and Central and North America for Cubans.
As a result of the dynamic migration patterns of Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans, and others to Guyana, the country’s net migration rate is stabilizing to levels unseen since the pre-independence period. While the net migration rate (number of immigrants minus number of emigrants) was -102,648 in 1987, it had fallen to -30,001 as of 2017. As Guyanese elect to stay in the country amid favorable economic projections and as members of the diaspora return, it is not unthinkable that a few years from now, Guyana could have a positive net migration rate for the first time in recent history, especially if immigrant flows from Venezuela and the Caribbean continue at the current pace.
The Discovery of Oil Brings Major Labor Migration Prospects
While most countries experienced massive economic losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Guyana’s economy boomed, with a real GDP growth of 43.5 percent in 2020. This growth is a result of major discoveries in the oil and gas sector and indirect impacts on other sectors, including tourism, services, and manufacturing. The trend is expected to continue with an estimated real GDP growth of 47.9 percent in 2022, making Guyana’s economic growth the fastest in the world.
To sustain its economic growth, Guyana is estimated to need at least 160,000 additional workers. Even if the country were to harness all unemployed, underemployed, and discouraged Guyanese workers, domestic supply would only amount to 63,500 workers. As a result, IOM estimates that Guyana will need to attract, at a minimum, 100,000 workers to realize its full growth potential. This is particularly the case given Guyana’s loss of most of its skilled workforce.
Guyana lacks a comprehensive migration policy to address evolving migration trends and meet the country’s needs. As a result, IOM and other international actors have recommended that Guyana establish an information center to conduct regular labor market and skills gap analyses, while taking stock of the skillsets of migrants already in the country and in CARICOM neighbors. In addition, there have been calls to modernize the immigration system by creating digital databases, establishing ethical recruitment procedures, and developing measures to regularize the status of migrant workers, who tend to be concentrated in the informal economy. The country also lacks a national immigrant integration program, with such efforts largely carried out by nongovernmental actors.
Tapping Labor Pools
To meet its labor needs, Guyana could most directly turn to three major labor supply sources: the Guyanese diaspora, Venezuelan migrants, and CARICOM nationals. First, given the size of the highly skilled diaspora, the Guyanese government could encourage the return of diaspora members through the development of robust return incentives. Guyana already has a Remigrant Scheme, which provides tax exemptions for the import of personal items and vehicles by Guyanese nationals wishing to return. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has recommended that Guyana build on these efforts by developing a “Guyana Global” online platform to harness the human capital of the diaspora, facilitate the exchange of expertise, and identify opportunities within public, private, and civil-society sectors to attract greater human, social, and financial capital. IOM and the Guyanese government launched a Diaspora Skills Mapping project in 2012; no data have been made public, though, on the skillsets of the diaspora and its relevancy for local needs.
The Venezuelan population already in Guyana also represents an untapped asset. As of 2021, 64 percent of Venezuelan migrants reported being unemployed, and those who were employed tended to be concentrated in informal, low-wage work. Though Venezuelans with stay permits can work independently, a work permit by way of employer sponsorship is required for formal, dependent employment. This process has been widely out of reach for many Venezuelans with limited professional contacts in Guyana. The RCBG migrant support project coordinator told the authors that officials increasingly are requiring a valid passport for migrants to obtain a work permit—a document that many Venezuelans do not have. At the same time, language barriers and skills gaps also prevent Spanish-speaking Venezuelans from fully integrating into the English-speaking Guyanese workforce. Local nongovernmental organizations including RCBG, Blossom Inc., and Hope Foundation, along with the Pan American Development Foundation, offer language courses and skills trainings to Venezuelans in Guyana.
CARICOM represents another major source of potential labor, which could help Guyana meet its worker shortage while also boosting the economic growth of the Caribbean overall, which has struggled amid the pandemic. Though intraregional mobility is institutionalized through the CSME, numerous employers are unaware of the skills categories established under the policy regime and the process for hiring CARICOM nationals. In addition, CARICOM migrants are required to present extensive supporting documentation, including travel documents, police clearance, and academic certificates to obtain a skills certificate allowing for employment under the CSME. For CARICOM migrants wanting to set up a business in Guyana, the paperwork is often complex and compliance requirements are at times inconsistently applied, local sources told the authors, speaking on condition of anonymity. Increasingly, public- and private-sector experts are noting that to fully leverage the potential of intraregional mobility, CARICOM and its Member States will have to streamline and institutionalize academic accreditation, business registration, and skills certificate processes, as well as build partnerships among regional chambers of commerce, universities, and businesses across CARICOM countries to link employment opportunities to skills.
Early Alarms: The Long-Term Challenges of the Oil Boom
Despite the positive economic prospects and expected labor demand resulting from the discovery of huge oil reserves in the Guyana-Suriname Basin, Guyana will have to grapple with several challenges that may hinder its long-term growth and prosperity.
The country could face what economists call the “resource curse,” which is the tendency of resource-rich countries to underperform economically despite natural resource wealth. As seen in other major oil-producing developing countries, including Angola, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, and Venezuela, if oil wealth is not managed properly, Guyana could suffer from heightened instability, corruption, inequality, and growing pressure on public resources and social systems. This could have particular effects for those, such as migrants, who live on the geographic and socioeconomic periphery. Migrants already face barriers accessing basic services in Guyana. Though there are no restrictions for migrants to access health care in theory, 64 percent of Venezuelan migrants in an IOM DTM survey in 2019 reported no access to health services, in part due to insufficient health clinics in administrative Regions 1 and 7, where most Venezuelans reside. Venezuelans also experience high levels of food insecurity, with 68 percent of respondents in the DTM survey saying they had limited or no access to food. Many migrants live in irregular encampments and overcrowded homes by rivers or the Atlantic coast, where they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental change.
Second, human trafficking, sex trafficking, and labor exploitation could be exacerbated with the transition to an oil economy, as experienced by migrant workers throughout the Middle East. Guyana is especially at risk given that these practices are already pervasive within its extractive industries. According to the 2021 U.S. State Department human trafficking report on Guyana, trafficking victims are primarily migrants, young people from rural and indigenous communities, and persons with low education levels engaged in work in the mining, forestry, agriculture, and domestic service sectors. Migrant women and children, chiefly from Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Suriname, and Venezuela, are also at heightened risk of sex trafficking in mining communities where illicit activity tends to be concentrated. Labor exploitation is also common among vulnerable migrants. With oil entering the picture, human-rights activists are sounding the alarm that problems apparent in the country’s mining communities may become even more widespread.
Third, climate change poses a significant threat to a country that is especially vulnerable to sea level rise given that 90 percent of its population lives in coastal areas that are 0.5 meters below sea level. The capital city, Georgetown, is one of the nine cities worldwide forecasted to be underwater by 2030. Researchers, activists, and other actors are concerned that Guyana is turning to oil to propel its growth, even as climate impacts are already being felt. In May 2021, large parts of the country were inundated, with all ten administrative regions heavily affected and almost 30,000 households displaced. Again, in May 2022, long-term rainfall caused rivers to rise, leading to flooding in Regions 5, 9, and 10. Beyond the damage from heavy rainfalls and flooding, sea-level rise can lead to salinization of freshwater sources, severely damage agricultural products, and make certain areas uninhabitable in the densely forested country. The coastal areas are kept dry through sea walls, which periodically are overtopped by high tides, and an aging network of drainage canals.
The country’s vulnerability to climate change made it focus on climate action, with protection of its rainforests earning it the reputation as a green champion—a title since challenged with its embrace of oil extraction.
The Guyanese government has proposed that oil revenues be directed to develop a green economy and finance climate adaptation projects, which could prevent displacement. However, the International Energy Agency warned that there could not be any new oil and gas fields approved for development anywhere around the globe by 2021 in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade and thus avoid the severe climate impacts that stem from temperatures beyond this threshold. Given accelerated exploration of sizable new oil wells in Guyana and other countries, the lack of support or action from rich countries to propel decarbonization, and the country’s high vulnerability to the effects of climate change, there is no guarantee that proposed mitigation efforts will be enough to protect Guyana’s people and infrastructure from the impacts of the climate crisis, potentially leading to significant climate-induced displacement in the future.
Much remains unclear about how Guyana will seek to balance the influx of oil revenue with the growing environmental, humanitarian, and integration challenges at its doorstep. Yet one thing is for certain—how the country chooses to regulate its migration policies and systems today will play a major role in its future development.
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