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Trinidad & Tobago deports Venezuelan women and children as matter of ‘national security’

A group of Venezuelan asylum-seekers including 16 children arrive for the second time on Trinidad soil, on November 24, 2020, due to a court order requiring them to appear at a habeas corpus hearing. Screenshot taken from a Trinidad and Tobago Newsday video of the landing, which was posted to the newspaper's YouTube channel.

The Trinidad and Tobago blogosphere has been in a heated discussion over the country's deportation of 16 Venezuelan minors and 11 adults — including nine women — who were reportedly sent away shortly before the group was supposed to have a habeas corpus hearing carded for 2 p.m. on November 22. It's a move that Minister of National Security Stuart Young has defended as part of his remit to protect the country.

After concerns that the vessels carrying them back to Venezuela could not be located and Venezuela's self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó describing Trinidad and Tobago's actions as “cruel, painful and inhumane,” not only has the group been found, but a Trinidadian judge, Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams, has ordered that the state return them to Trinidad for their court hearing.

The asylum-seekers returned to Trinidad shores on November 24, where they were greeted by relatives who reside on the island:

The issue was first brought to public attention by attorney Nafeesa Mohammed, who resigned as deputy political leader of the governing People's National Movement (PNM) mere weeks before Trinidad and Tobago's general election on August 10.

Mohammed says the group was initially arrested on November 17 in south Trinidad, which lies about 11 kilometres north of Venezuela. The South American country's continuing political and socioeconomic crisis has forced thousands of asylum-seekers into Trinidad and Tobago.

In this particular case, however, there were concerns for the well-being of the children especially, which prompted Mohammed to send correspondence to the chief immigration officer asking for dialogue. Although birth certificates and other relevant documentation were reportedly submitted to the country's immigration division, they were not accepted. Upon learning that deportation was imminent, Mohammed succeeded in having the court hearing moved up, but to no avail. She has since suggested that the state's actions in this regard were in breach of its international obligations and wants an investigation to be launched into the matter.

Stuart Young, Trinidad and Tobago's minister of national security, held a press conference on November 24, to address the situation and “send some very strong signals” regarding the nation's safety and the laws that have been put in place to ensure it.

Framing his comments against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Young noted that Trinidad and Tobago's borders are closed to both nationals and non-nationals, and have been since March 17, soon after the country recorded its index case of the virus. Anyone who wishes to enter the country while the border closure remains in effect must get clearance from the minister himself.

Given these parameters, Young continued, the Venezuelans in question were in breach of Trinidad and Tobago's immigration laws, health regulations, and government policy. Mohammed insists, however, that members of the group who were deported all tested negative for COVID-19.

Stressing that the government “cannot be legitimately and justifiably accused” of dealing with non-national migration issues without a humanitarian pillar, Young reiterated:

It is not up to any one person — in a democracy, it doesn't operate like that. It's not up to lawyers, it's not up to courts, it's not up to anyone to just change the law according to how they feel. This government has always approached the issue of non-national migration with a balance that includes the humanitarian aspect.

At the beginning of 2019, however, even as Caribbean nations were attempting to engage in decisive international diplomacy regarding Venezuela’s political impasse, Trinidad and Tobago seemed reticent to label it a humanitarian crisis, opting instead to echo the Caribbean Community's (CARICOM) diplomatic position of “non-interference and non-intervention.”

By June of that year, the Trinidad and Tobago government did make good on its promise to regularise Venezuelan asylum-seekers. Many of the conditions and privileges associated with this registration process have since been extended past the initial year-long limit, all of which Young cites as proof of his government's consideration of the humanitarian angle, though it remains unclear what is to happen once the extension is up.

International agencies have not always agreed that the Trinidad and Tobago government has acted in humanitarian ways. Back in April 2018, Trinidad and Tobago's repatriation of 82 Venezuelans attracted harsh criticism from The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which called the move a “forced deportation” that breached international law.

Trinidad and Tobago has acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention and is a signatory to both the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

At his press conference, Young chastised “international agencies” for bandying about statistics that suggested there were far larger numbers of Venezuelan asylum-seekers in the country than the amount that actually registered during the two-week process in June 2019.

However, a Global Voices report dated June 4, 2019, states that the UNHCR estimated that Trinidad and Tobago's “population of concern” at that time comprised more than 10,000 people — among them, 800 refugees and 9,985 asylum-seekers, most of whom are from Venezuela. The final tally of asylum-seekers who registered was 16,523.

At the end of the process, Trinidad and Tobago instituted a visa requirement for all Venezuelans wishing to enter the country. Unregistered non-nationals would be subject to deportation.

Saying that he “understands the emotion” of the situation, Young warned against those who are attempting to “manipulate the narrative as being about women and children.” For many social media users, however, that was the crux of the matter:

Attorney Mohammed confirmed that some of the children’s parents are registered in Trinidad and Tobago, while others are UNHCR card-holders. Minister Young countered that Venezuelans with Trinidad and Tobago registration cards who bring friends or family into the country are breaking the law and will be deported, adding that UNHCR registration does not give anyone landed status in the country.

He also raised concerns about situations of this nature being a red flag with regard to human trafficking, since there are active rings in Trinidad and Tobago, and members of law enforcement and border control authorities are suspected of being involved.

Despite referring to Trinidad and Tobago's Immigration Act, which has a clause that refers to an “undesirable” class of people that may be prohibited from entering the country and offers a “further layer of protection,” Minister Young said that while he was concerned for the group's safety, he must uphold the law, which is “clear and cannot be contradicted.”

With regard to the court protocols, he noted:

The persons were returned to Venezuela before any court order was made. So, there is no longer any jurisdiction, there is no breach, there is no misinforming the court or anything like that.

Nevertheless, the court has successfully ensured that the group is back on Trinidad and Tobago soil and that the children have been released into the care of their parents.

The legal process continues, but in the court of public opinion, many have already decided that Trinidad and Tobago's actions were “morally bankrupt.”

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