Attorney: Police destroying asylum seekers' certificates
Photo: This December 2017 photo shows Cuban refugees living in Port of Spain. The asylum seekers were asking to be sent to the US.
Attorney Jevvon Williams said some police officers are detaining asylum seekers and destroying their asylum seeker certificates and other identification documents in direct violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Trinidad and Tobago is a contracting party.
Speaking at a public forum titled "Public Panel Discussion: Refugee Law in an Interconnected World in Trinidad and Tobago" at the Hall of Justice on Wednesday, Williams said the matter is a critical one which needs to be immediately addressed.
"There is an obvious disconnect between the Conventions we have acceded to as a country and what is actually happening on the ground.”
“The police in Trinidad and Tobago are even going as far as taking away persons’ asylum seeker certificates and destroying them, leaving them without an identification document or any document of any sort. This cannot be allowed to continue.”
Williams added that the courts also have been known to issue orders to forcibly deport asylum seekers which is a violation of the Convention’s protocols.
“Persons can come in legally and when they come in they tell the immigration officer ‘I am seeking asylum’. There are provisions in the immigration manual on how to treat with this situation, however again there is a disconnect because the persons in charge of our courts…refuse those asylum seekers entry and put them on the first flight or first vessel back to the country that they are trying to flee.”
“We cannot allow this to continue,” he said.
Williams said asylum seekers should be informed as to what their rights are, and that the state should help people who are fleeing their countries.
“These are people fleeing their countries, they do not just want to leave their homes, they don’t see Trinidad and Tobago as the best place in the world. It is because there is a situation at home that they cannot deal with and it’s a very serious situation in which they have no other choice but to leave their homes,” he said.
He also sought to address misinformation regarding the status of refugees which increases citizens’ fear of migrants.
He said contrary to media reports there are not 40,000 asylum seekers in Trinidad and Tobago.
“That cannot be correct. A lot of people are fearful that migrants will come, work for less money and that they will be out of a job. That in turn fuels how we treat with migrants. Misinformation must be corrected, we must state the correct things. Persons in the public space must give correct figures and account for how we treat with the migrant population.”
He added that migrants are being treated in a negative light, as shown by US media reports on migrant children who are being separated from their families.
Williams said in fact, migrants are beneficial for a country’s growth.
“Migrants, most of the times, contribute. They contribute to your nation, to your economy. They can make us proud so we need to treat with them as we would our brothers and sisters,” he said.
LoopTT as reached out to National Security Minister Edmund Dillon for a response.
About the 1951 Refugee Convention
According to the Convention, contracting states shall not discriminate against refugees (Article 3) or take exceptional measures against a refugee solely on account of his or her nationality (Article 8).
Countries which have agreed to the Convention cannot force refugees to pay taxes and fiscal charges that are different to those of nationals (Article 29), or impose penalties on refugees who entered illegally in search of asylum if they present themselves (Article 31).
Contracting states cannot expel refugees (Article 32) or forcibly return or "refoul" refugees to the country they've fled from (Article 33).
It is widely accepted that the prohibition of forcible return is part of customary international law. This means that even States that are not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention must respect the principle of non-refoulement.
Therefore, States are obligated under the Convention and under customary international law to respect the principle of non-refoulement. If and when this principle is threatened, UNHCR can respond by intervening with relevant authorities, and if it deems necessary, will inform the public.
Contracting states must also respect a refugee's personal status and the rights that come with it, particularly rights related to marriage (Article 12).
Contracting states must also provide free access to courts for refugees (Article 16), identity papers (Article 27), travel documents (Article 28), and administrative assistance (Article 25) for refugees.
They must also provide the possibility of assimilation and naturalization to refugees (Article 34) and cooperate with the UNHCR (Article 35) in the exercise of its functions and to help UNHCR supervise the implementation of the provisions in the Convention.
Contracting states must also provide information on any national legislation they may adopt to ensure the application of the Convention (Article 36).
Contracting states can, however, take provisional measures against a refugee in the interest of national security, under Article 9 of the Convention.
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