Saturday 22 February, 2020

Attorney: T&T aligning with US to ‘clamp down’ on refugees

Attorney Farid Scoon said Trinidad and Tobago seems to be following in the footsteps of the US in persecuting refugees and asylum seekers, adding that once asylum seekers are detained in a detention centre, lawyers are prevented from speaking to them.

Speaking at a public panel discussion entitled “Refugee Law in an Interconnected World”, hosted by the University of the West Indies (UWI) Law Faculty's Human Rights Clinic at the Hall of Justice on June 20, Scoon said attorneys cannot speak with persons who are being held at the Immigration Detention Centre.

"There is a continuing and increasing alliance with immigration policies in the US to clamp down on refugee seekers in Trinidad (and Tobago), to put them in detention centres, and you cannot have access to them in the detention centre. (For example) if a lawyer goes do an affidavit of a person who is in the detention centre, the lawyers have no access," he said. 

Attorney Devvon Williams, who also spoke at the panel discussion, added however that if the attorney knows persons in the Immigration Detention Centre they might be able to 'work their way in'.


Scoon also related a case where a lawyer from the Attorney General's office admitted before a judge that there were no protections for asylum seekers.

"I have been before the court of appeal at four o'clock in the morning where there were two persons who were being put on a plane sponsored by the American government to refoul (forcibly return) them to African countries, those two persons being proven applicants for asylum status with the local asylum status body, the Living Waters Community, and before a judge of the Supreme Court of the Court of Appeal.

"The question was asked to the attorney of the Attorney General's office, 'Does Trinidad have any protection for a person who has applied for asylum status?' and that lawyer said no," Scoon said. 

He added that many lawyers are barred from accessing information on the asylum seeker process in Trinidad and Tobago.

"The immigration manual is a hidden book, a practitioner cannot get a copy of it. It is not available for sale, and even though that book says that you cannot refoul (forcibly return), the judge has never seen it, no practitioner has ever seen it, no one sees it, not even immigration officers see it, it is hidden from them."

"That is the status of the asylum seekers' protection in Trinidad and Tobago at this time. It is zero," he said. 

Scoon added that Trinidad and Tobago was one of the last countries to accept the 1951 Refugee Convention on asylum seekers, having only passed the requisite legislation in 2000. Belize was one of the first countries to accept refugees in 1984.

Three other CARICOM countries - Barbados, Guyana and Grenada, still have not adopted the Convention.

Scoon added that even after accepting the convention, Trinidad and Tobago must still pass the requisite legislation in order for it to have effect. 

Among the other recommendations made by the Human Rights Clinic was the provision of education for refugee children, including removing the student permit requirement, as well as providing support to assist them with integration into society. 

One Venezuelan woman said to LoopTT that she is an attorney in her country and that she wants to be allowed to work and contribute.

"We do not want handouts, we want to be able to work," she said. 


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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