PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Tuesday April 24, 2018 – The Trinidad and Tobago government is on the defensive after being criticized for sending Venezuelans who were seeking asylum in the twin-island republic back home where they face hardship. It says the 82 Venezuelan nationals who were repatriated last weekend went willingly, and had not been coerced to leave.
The United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) claimed that among those sent back were registered asylum-seekers and people who had declared an intention to apply for refugee status.
It said that therefore made their “forced return” to Venezuela “a breach of international refugee law”.
“We are in contact with the authorities and are seeking clarification on the legal process which has led to the deportation of this group, to ensure that Trinidad and Tobago continues to abide by its international obligations,” said Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, in a statement issued yesterday.
The UNHCR said the Venezuelans were deported despite the UN agency’s request for access to the individuals concerned and written interventions.
“UNHCR calls on Trinidad and Tobago to continue to abide by its international obligations as signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and other applicable international instruments that are incorporated into its official Refugee Policy, in particular the principle of non-return…and Article 31 of the Convention which requests signatories ‘not to impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence’ to people who are in need of international protection,” it said.
“UNHCR will continue working closely with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to complement its efforts aimed at developing, strengthening and implementing its asylum policy, as well as to support host communities, while offering guidance and assistance to people in need of international protection.”
However, the Trinidad and Tobago government insisted that the 53 men and 29 women “voluntarily left the Immigration Detention Centre to be repatriated to their homeland”.
Venezuelans have been leaving their country in droves because of the hardships associated with the economic crisis, including shortages of food and medication.
The National Security Ministry issued a statement in which it said that the Trinidad and Tobago government respects the rights of any person to seek asylum in Trinidad and Tobago and the decision of any foreign national to voluntarily return to their country of nationality.
It also pointed out that it has a right to repatriate any foreign national found to be in breach of the laws and take the necessary steps to ensure repatriation.
The ministry said that following revelations by the Chief Immigration Officer at a Joint Select Committee of Parliament on April 6, that 89 Venezuelan nationals were detained for various offences at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), officials from the Venezuelan Embassy visited the nationals detained at the IDC on April 13 to ascertain their well-being and identify their needs for repatriation.
“Subsequently, at the request of the Venezuelan Ambassador, a meeting was held between the Ministry of National Security and the Venezuelan Embassy on Tuesday April 17th, 2018 to discuss the situation. The Venezuelan Ambassador stated that her fellow citizens expressed a desire to return to Venezuela and she had assured them that the Government of Venezuela would do everything possible to assist them in returning home. The Minister of National Security also gave the assurance that his Ministry would work with the Embassy to facilitate the repatriation,” the statement said.
“On Friday, April 20th 2018, at the request of the Venezuelan Embassy, the Immigration Division facilitated all Venezuelan nationals in detention who agreed to go to their Embassy to obtain travel documents to return to Venezuela; 102 persons were transported to the Embassy,” the ministry said, adding that none of them expressed fear or objection to be taken to the Embassy.
However, of those 102, 19 could not be repatriated since warrants had been issued for them to serve varying terms of imprisonment in Trinidad and Tobago, having been convicted for various offences.
The National Security Ministry said the detainees were informed by the Venezuelan officials that a plane would be sent from Venezuela to take them home on April 21, and at the same time, a diplomatic note was sent to the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs seeking permission to land a Venezuelan aircraft to specifically repatriate Venezuelan citizens detained at the Immigration Detention Centre.
It added that through the collaborative effort of the Ministry of National Security and the Venezuelan Embassy, a Venezuelan military aircraft landed at Piarco International and 82 Venezuelan “voluntarily left the Immigration Detention Centre with Detention and Immigration Officers to be repatriated to their homeland”.
“At the airport, each person was asked if they had any fear or objection to returning to their homeland; all stated that they wanted to leave. Each signed the necessary documents for their departure…”
The ministry said that before boarding the plane, the Venezuelans were asked again by a different set of officials if they had any fear of returning to their homeland, and “each again responded in the negative and willingly boarded a bus with their belongings to be taken to the aircraft. No one was forced or coerced to leave the IDC, board the bus or the aircraft. The entire exercise was recorded by the Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard.”
The government said it has been collaborating with the UNHCR to ensure the protection of persons fleeing persecution and will continue to support the work of that agency, while maintaining law and order and the national security of Trinidad and Tobago.