Written by Denise Pitcher Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) & Gisele Bonnici IDC Americas Regional Coordinator

Immigration detention policies and practices continue to be a serious human rights issue in Trinidad and Tobago (TT). Trinidad has experienced an influx of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Venezuela. In addition to the Venezuelan migrant and asylum-seeking population, over 40 other nationalities seek international protection in TT. 

Trinidad and Tobago is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol however the protections have not been included in national law and the country continues to treat the arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers under the 1976 Immigration Act. This law lacks provisions to treat the particular vulnerabilities and needs of those in need of international protection and to guarantee the rights of migrants. Consequently, persons that are found entering irregularly are charged with illegal entry without an individualised assessment of their cases thereby criminalising the asylum process. 

It is in this context that serious instances of human rights violations occur with respect to immigration detention in TT. The strict application of the Immigration Act results in a reliance on detention to regulate migration in TT, leading to instances of arbitrary and indefinite detention. This reliance on immigration detention places legitimate persons in need of protection at further risk and exacerbates their already vulnerable situations. The Immigration Act urgently needs updating to adapt to the current context of migration in TT and more critically to ensure the protection of human rights of migrants and refugees.

People who are detained are placed in one of two immigration detention facilities. The original immigration detention centre at Aripo has been described by detainees as severely unsanitary and inhumane. Detainees are often forced to live in these conditions for months and even years. One detainee, from an African country, whose exact nationality is unknown, has been in this facility for over eight years and suffers from serious health conditions. It is difficult to ascertain the quality of care he is receiving or what legal support he has access to given the lack of access by civil society to the immigration detention facilities and the lack of independent monitoring.

The lack of independent monitoring in all places of detention is another critical issue as reports regularly surface, citing assault, lack of proper care and other abuses and it is impossible to independently verify the human rights situation of detainees in immigration detention and hold officials accountable. The Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) recently received a report of a recognised refugee who had her government registration card confiscated (this card allows Venezuelans that have been registered with the government to live and work in TT) by an immigration detention official before she was returned to Venezuela. She was detained by the police along with her sister on suspicion of being involved in human trafficking. She was not allowed to challenge her deportation, as she was deported three days after being detained. This unfortunately is not a unique event but indicative of the standard practice and treatment by the state towards migrants and refugees. Another disturbing practice that has been reported is that before migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are deported they are made to sign forms that are in English without the support of interpreters. Some detainees may speak English and understand what they are signing, however the vast majority of migrants that are deported are Venezuelan nationals and so English is not their first language and they need support with interpretation.

Particularly concerning is the continued detention of migrant and refugee children who are often detained for several months. Even though international human rights standards and practices emphasise that children should not be detained for their migration status this is an ongoing practice by the government of TT. Notably, TT has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and established legislation to ensure the promotion and protection of children’s rights in the Children’s Act. Currently, there are around ten children in immigration detention with one child detainee who is as young as two years old. Also of concern is that women and children are not separated from unrelated men at the immigration detention facility in Chaguaramas.

Immigration detention policies and practices in TT, particularly the absence of a legal framework to guide treatment of migrants and people seeking asylum, requires further scrutiny by the international community. Without accountability mechanisms, human rights violations will persist. CCHR makes the following key recommendations with regard to immigration detention and the use of ATD:

  • The need for a refugee policy or legislation, or implementation of the Refugee Convention, which will reduce the instances of immigration detention because a policy/law will establish mechanisms for individualised assessments to identify persons in need of protection. 
  • The government should cease detaining children and adopt non-custodial, community-based alternatives to detention, relying on civil society and members of the migrant community to support with the care of migrant children.
  • Adhere to the provisions in the Immigration Act, in particular to ensure that Special Inquiries happen after each arrest to ascertain whether the person should be subjected to detention.
  • Increase the use of Orders of Supervision to mitigate a reliance on immigration detention, thus allowing persons to be released on an order of supervision under which they would be required to report to immigration division on a regular basis.
  • Increase engagement with local and international stakeholders to develop a coordinated and holistic approach to immigration detention that prioritises the human rights of migrants and refugees.
  • Train frontline state officials, police, magistrate, coast guard on human rights obligations with respect to migrants and refugees.

IDC stands by our partner CCHR in their recommendations, as well as their ongoing advocacy to protect the human rights of migrants and refugees in Trinidad and Tobago.