On World Refugee Day, celebrated annually on June 20, we honour the courage and resilience of persons forced to flee their homes seeking protection from persecution due to war, conflict or violence. It’s also a day to reflect on the progress that the international community has made to ensure the protection of the human rights of refugees and to reflect on our humanity towards persons in need of protection.
This year’s theme focuses on the “right to seek safety”. According to the Refugee Convention, every person seeking asylum has the right to seek safety, as well as the right not to be forced back to the place they have fled and to be treated humanely. Trinidad and Tobago has fallen short of effectively and humanely managing the influx of asylum seekers on our shores, many of whom are fleeing the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Trinidad receives additional asylum seekers and refugees from over 40 countries.
Multiple violations of human rights have occurred at the hands of the state which can be attributed in large part to the lack of a legal framework to guide the response of the authorities to the influx and to manage the asylum process. No one could have foreseen the scale of the Venezuelan crisis, nonetheless, the lack of an established, coordinated response has created a crisis of our own making. Bungled responses by state authorities, some of which have produced devastating consequences, including the shooting death of one year old Yaelvis Santoyo, and other rights violations such as refoulement, prolonged detention and the detention of children, have tarnished Trinidad’s reputation and undermined the international community’s confidence in its ability to honour its international obligations. Government officials often emphasise the need to protect national security as a justification for disregarding their obligations under the Refugee Convention. However, a properly managed asylum system with a well designed response, guided by a refugee policy or law would do more for our national security than the current ad hoc response adopted by the state.
The outdated Immigration Act lacks provisions to deal with persons seeking asylum, forcing asylum seekers to take irregular routes to avoid being charged and/or deported. Unmanaged flows create the conditions for criminal networks and trafficking rings to flourish. Asylum systems allow for screening of persons at the borders to assess their needs which makes it easier to identify and track who is entering the country.
A policy would also reduce illegal entries and the demand for smugglers and human traffickers because of the establishment of safe and legal pathways to seek asylum. It would also reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse that so many asylum seekers experience at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. A refugee policy is also necessary to define the roles and responsibilities of all actors involved in receiving asylum seekers, from the coast guard, to the police to the immigration officials. This would ensure that everyone is aware of how persons in need of protection are to be treated and who assumes responsibility at each stage, thus avoiding violations such as arbitrary detention and unlawful deportation.
The number of matters in the courts challenging detention, deportations and other human rights violations would also decrease, reducing the burdens on our justice system and state resources. Without a refugee policy, refugees do not have proper legal documentation to allow them to fully integrate into Trinbagonian society, contribute to the economy and reduce national security risks. Refugees face challenges getting bank accounts, accessing loans and other financial services that would allow for their economic mobility.
Refugees tend to be extremely willing to engage in entrepreneurial activities however the lack of documentation in Trinidad is a barrier to allowing them to meaningfully participate in the economy, contribute to the development and diversification of the economy and become self-reliant. Refugees still do not have access to education in Trinidad and Tobago, a fundamental human right which is critical to a nation’s development and national security.
While there are limited educational programmes supported by UNHCR, UNICEF and their implementing partners, these programmes do not allow for accreditation with the Ministry of Education, essentially stunting their academic careers and threatening to leave an entire generation behind.
Consequently, refugees would be forced to engage in alternative methods to secure incomes because of barriers due to lack of documentation which inhibits labour market participation. The international community has consistently pledged its support with financial assistance to support Trinidad and Tobago to manage the refugee flows. Trinidad and Tobago would benefit from resources to build the capacity of our immigration system, to support the development of an asylum infrastructure, to hire more officers and to train officials. Our education system would also benefit with resources for expansion of the system should refugee children be allowed to attend local schools.
While a state has the right to protect its sovereignty, the rule of law and protection of human rights surely must be maintained. The lack of coordination and communication between the various stakeholders and the existence of no coherent response may be costing us resources, inhibiting our ability to combat trafficking and smuggling, and denying those in need of protection the right to seek safety. As a member of the international community we are duty bound to protect refugees and a refugee policy will ensure that we honour our commitment under the Refugee Convention.
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