“I work seven days a week, 12 hours a day at a local supermarket. Every day is like a game of Russian roulette. The police could arrest me at any time,” said former Venezuelan journalist Mateo.* Even though Mateo has refugee status in Trinidad and Tobago, he still lacks the legal right to work. After two years of working under the table, though, he has not been caught. He is one of the lucky ones.
For asylum seekers in Trinidad and Tobago, fear of the police and immigration officers is widespread. To date, at least 40,000 Venezuelans have fled to the island that lies just 7 miles (11km) from the coast of their home country. Since Venezuelans often have expired passports or no documents at all, many cross Trinidad and Tobago’s porous border through unofficial routes, usually on fishing boats.
Without legislation on refugees and asylum claims, the government’s Immigration Act determines the fate of asylum seekers – and it treats them no differently from unauthorized immigrants. Consequently, even registering as an asylum seeker with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) is insufficient legal protection for displaced Venezuelans on the island. In April 2018, Trinidad and Tobago deported 82 Venezuelans – some of whom were registered asylum seekers with UNHCR – in flagrant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory. When deported, Venezuelans return to a country rife with political oppression, an economy in free fall, and severe food and medicine shortages. Needless to say, the situation back home is dire.
In November 2018, I was part of a Refugees International team in Trinidad and Tobago that met with Diego and Antonio, two of the 82 deported Venezuelans. When they first arrived on the island in March 2018, Diego had malaria. Luckily, the men quickly found Living Water Community, the primary NGO providing aid for asylum seekers on the island. The organization helped them register for asylum and pay their rent and, ultimately, sent Diego to the hospital to seek treatment. However, one day when Antonio was visiting Diego, the hospital staff called the immigration authorities. Despite the two men presenting their UNHCR papers, the immigration officials told them the documentation “didn’t matter and made no difference.” Diego and Antonio were then escorted to the island’s immigrant detention center.
In the context of the 3 million Venezuelans who have been displaced by the crisis, a figure of more than 40,000 in Trinidad might not sound significant. However, the island-nation has a population of 1.3 million, so it is hosting more Venezuelans per capita than most other countries. Given Trinidad’s and other Caribbean countries’ close historic ties with Venezuela, they have afforded few rights and protections to the displaced. In Trinidad, even with refugee status, Venezuelans are afforded only three rights: the right to not be deported, freedom of movement and family reunification. With the U.N. projecting that the number of Venezuelans in need of protection will grow this year to nearly 3.6 million, the island cannot ignore its responsibility to respond to the crisis on its doorstep.
On the ground, our team heard from many who had been in the detention system that conditions in the detention center are grave, and that there is overcrowding. Detainees have reported suffering or witnessing beatings at the hands of detention guards. They have limited access to health care. Others reported that they can access natural sunlight for only 15 minutes twice a week. Currently, there’s no oversight or accountability by outside observers, including UNHCR. Some people are kept in detention for months on end, and some are even transferred to the island’s maximum-security prison or women’s prison. As one asylum seeker told us, “They may call it a detention center, but it’s a jail, too.”
Ultimately, Diego and Antonio were forced to choose between signing a “voluntary” deportation order, or being “put in prison for a very, very long time,” said Diego. They chose deportation. Other former detainees reported receiving similar offers to sign voluntary deportation orders. Those who refused deportation had to pay a security bond of TT$2,100 (about $300) and relinquish their passports. They were also placed under an order of supervision, which requires asylum seekers to report to the authorities once a week or month after release.
Just a month after Diego and Antonio were deported to Venezuela, they fled back to Trinidad and Tobago and re-registered for asylum. They now live in a two-bedroom home with 12 other family members and are afraid to go outside. They told us the day before we met them, “Trinidadian police turned up to the house with guns. They asked for our passports. We showed our asylum-seeker cards and asked them to call UNHCR. Thanks to UNHCR, the police did not take us away.”
For asylum seekers in Trinidad and Tobago, the status quo is unacceptable. The government must take steps to live up to its commitments under international law and respect the rights and dignity of asylum seekers. They can do so by utilizing alternatives to detention, investing in systematic sensitization on asylum claims for police and immigration officials and improving conditions in and external access to the detention center.
As one Venezuelan woman told me, “We only want a normal life. We want to feel human and be treated with respect.” They deserve no less.
*Pseudonyms were used for all Venezuelan asylum seekers.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.