Refugee Convention: signed, sealed…delivered?

As a signatory to the Convention, Trinidad and Tobago’s commitment to protecting refugees comes into question with the recent deportation of 82 Venezuelans.
Sign held during Refugee Solidarity Demonstration in Germany in 2013 Photo by: Haeferl Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

On 21st April 2018, the government of Trinidad and Tobago deported 82 detained Venezuelan migrants back to their country.  According to the Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon in a Trinidad Express report, out of the 82 Venezuelans, 3 abandoned their asylum certificates.

Further, in a CNC3 report, Minister Dillon claimed that the deportation process was voluntary, and done in association with the Venezuelan Ambassador Coromoto Godoy Calderón.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a press release, highlighting their regret over the deportation of the Venezuelans. In essence, the UNHCR criticized the government’s actions, given that several Venezuelans had applied for asylum and refugee status.

After this, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley, declared that the country was not going to become a refugee camp. He highlighted the limited capacity and the small size of the State as a constraint towards assisting the thousands of Venezuelans entering the country.

Trinidad and Tobago’s legal domestic framework

Trinidad and Tobago became a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol in 2000. To date, the State is yet to deliver on its commitment towards implementing an effective asylum system through domestic legislation to protect and accord rights to refugees and asylum seekers.

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Consequently, as highlighted by refugee experts Nahkid and Welch, refugees and asylum seekers continue to be mandated under the country’s Immigration Act, which does not adequately provide any rights for refugees – such as the right to work – as they are seen as immigrants.

Yet, a Refugee Policy was adopted in 2014 to transfer Refugee Status Determination (RSD) from the UNHCR to the government. Essentially, RSD is the procedure wherein governments or the UNHCR decide whether an individual seeking international protection is a refugee.

While the policy also recommends rights to recognized refugees; currently, they do not have the right to work, identity documents, public assistance and access to psychological treatment, education for children, and family reunification.

Refugee Aid and Rights in Trinidad and Tobago

As such, the UNHCR and the Living Water Community (LWC), a non-governmental organization that works on identifying persons of concern and referring them to the UNHCR, have been providing assistance to refugees and asylum seekers within the country.

Nevertheless, presently, refugees only have the right to freedom of movement, medical care and to not be forcibly returned. Still, there were about four instances of forcible return (refoulement) according to Trinidad and Tobago’s Human Rights Report 2016.

In light of the cases of refoulement, the Refugee Convention non-refoulement principle, binding to all nations, prohibits States from forcibly returning refugees and asylum seekers back to their home country.

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The Venezuelan Crisis

Given the recent deportation of Venezuelan nationals – several of whom were asylum seekers – it is noteworthy to acknowledge that since 2016, high inflation and scarce goods have characterized Venezuela’s economic crisis, which has resulted in high levels of poverty.

Human Rights Watch also reported that the Venezuelan government has been directing systematic human rights abuses – torture and sexual assault – against “anti-government protesters and political opponents.”

As such, Venezuelans have been seeking asylum in neighbouring countries – including Trinidad and Tobago – due to the ongoing crisis.

Belize vs. Trinidad and Tobago

Considering the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago’s statement of being a small State with limited capacity to manage refugees and asylum seekers, Belize has managed to host a relatively large number of asylum seekers despite being relatively smaller than Trinidad and Tobago.

In 2017, Belize had an estimated population of 360,000; an estimated GDP of 1.8US$ billion; and an unemployment rate of 10.1%. On the other hand, Trinidad and Tobago had a population of approximately over 1 million; a GDP of 20US$ billion; and an unemployment rate of 4.1%.

Both countries suffered economic downturns in 2016 but began experiencing a slow rise in economic growth in 2018.

However, a significant difference between the two countries as it relates to refugees and asylum seekers is the fact that Belize adopted a refugee act in 2000, and is the only Caribbean country having done so.

In 2017, there were 326 refugees and asylum seekers in Trinidad and Tobago originating from as far as Syria and as close as Venezuela. Recently, the majority originated from Venezuela as it was indicated that the country was hosting approximately 200 registered Venezuelan asylum seekers.

In that same year, Belize had over 3,900 asylum seekers. In this instance, Belize continued to host a proportionately high number of asylum seekers than Trinidad and Tobago. Therefore, as a small State facing its own economic challenges, Belize has shown that implementing an asylum system allows the country to effectively coordinate and manage the inflow of refugees and asylum seekers.

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Challenges and Solutions for Small States

Small States like Trinidad and Tobago and Belize continue to face challenges in managing the inflow of refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugee experts Nahkid and Maharaj conferred that “there is the great challenge of protecting refugees with limited resources, not just economic resources but also the availability of physical space” and “lack of legal mechanisms within most small island nation States pose significant challenges.”

For this reason, Nahkid and Maharaj determined that the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) is an imperative system to aid in solving the difficulties faced by small island nation States.

The CRRF can facilitate and alleviate the pressure on nations that welcome and host displaced people by helping refugees become independent and widening access to resettlement in third nations and other routes.

They further highlighted the need for collaboration among different stakeholders such as supportive governments, universities and faith based communities.

The government of Trinidad and Tobago should continue collaborating with the UNHCR and the LWC towards establishing domestic refugee law. Implementing legislation would enhance and provide effective safeguarding mechanisms for refugees and asylum seekers.

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Caribbean Connections
Nikita Diaz

As a human rights advocate, Nikita Diaz has volunteered under the United Nations Volunteer Programme (UNVP) to assist in building indicators to assess the advancement of Sustainable Development Goal 16 – Peace and Security in Trinidad and Tobago. In addition, she recently completed her Postgraduate Diploma in International Relations at the University of the West Indies (UWI), primarily concentrating her study on refugees and asylum seekers. Her mission is to enter the field of human rights once she has completed her Msc. in Global Studies. She is also a lover of fashion and hopes to travel the world one day.
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