A group of Venezuelan asylum-seekers arrive for the second time on Trinidad soil, on November 24, 2020. The group had a scheduled habeus corpus hearing in Trinidad and Tobago. Screenshot taken from a Trinidad and Tobago Newsday video of the landing, which was posted to the newspaper’s YouTube channel.
The public discussion around refugees and migration continues in Trinidad and Tobago, following the state’s decision to deport 16 Venezuelan minors and 11 adults on November 22, shortly before they were scheduled to have a habeas corpus hearing. The group was returned to Trinidad and Tobago on November 24, as a result of a court order.
Now, High Court Judge Frank Seepersad has refused to grant an injunction preventing the state from deporting an 11-year-old girl who was among those repatriated. In his judgement, he explained:
[…] the Court is not satisfied that having regard to all of the outlined circumstances, that the reliefs sought in the substantive claim are so clothed with the likelihood of success that the court should adopt the exceptional course of restraining the State from enforcing what appears to be applicable domestic law.
The rationale for Seepersad’s decision hinged on the fact that the child’s legal submission was based on the 2014 Draft Policy on Refugees and Asylum Seekers, a document that has been approved by Cabinet, but not by Parliament. This, he said, meant that the government had the full authority to adapt national policy as needed.
National Security Minister Stuart Young has gone on record as saying the initial decision to deport the group was based on safety concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic, reiterating that the country’s borders have been closed since March. It is a position that, in the words of Seepersad’s ruling, “does not strike the Court […] as an irregular or unreasonable policy shift.”
Evan as Seepersad chided the state for the unsafe manner in which the group was deported, he also chastised the child’s mother (who does not have documented status in Trinidad and Tobago) over what he called “the brazen and bold disregard for the immigration laws of this Republic,” and her failure to properly consider the child’s welfare as required by the same UN Convention upon which her lawyers are basing her case:
There are many citizens in this Republic who are faced with difficult economic circumstances and they too may wish to go to another country where the economic prospects are brighter, but these citizens should not be entitled to be refugees or asylum-seekers seeking status under the 1951 Convention.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Judge Seepersad’s ruling differs from those of the two other judges — Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams and Justice Joan Charles — who heard submissions from the group, a dissonance which speaks volumes about how the wider public feels about the issue.
In fact, the December 2 editorials of two local newspapers landed on opposite sides of the discussion. The Trinidad and Tobago Newsday suggested that the government appeared to have “sidestepped” the court:
[…] the sheer number of people deported and the timing of the announcement suggested the actions of a State content to appear in defiance of the Supreme Court, international law and basic human compassion.
The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, on the other hand, noted that Justice Seepersad was clear about the state’s “right to deport illegal migrants”:
As citizens, we need to consider whether we really want to open ourselves to a flood of migrants at a time when the country is hard-pressed enough to meet the needs of its own citizens.
On the same page as the Guardian opinion, however, appeared a column by journalist Wesley Gibbings, which argued that there was “no ‘other take’” — no perspective to be had on the issue other than a humanitarian one.
Trinidad and Tobago’s attorney general, Faris Al Rawi, said of the most recent court ruling:
Whilst it is certainly a very clear legal victory, I take no comfort in [it], in particular because of the human factors involved […] but I am duty-bound […] to uphold the laws of Trinidad and Tobago.
He added that it was possible for Venezuelans to apply for visas to enter the country legally, and that such visas “are not denied as a matter of course.”