THE FALLOUT over this country’s return of 82 Venezuelan nationals who had fled their homeland underlines why this country urgently needs to enact laws to implement our international commitments regarding the treatment of refugees. But further, it serves to demonstrate the need for government and State actors to be more responsive to the democratic and moral principles that underlie many of our treaty obligations and that, furthermore, form the bedrock of our own society.
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi has said there is no law implementing our international treaty commitments on refugees. The implication is that this country broke no law when it sent the Venezuelans packing. But this suggestion is subject to serious challenge: one attorney acting on behalf of one of the Venezuelans has alleged that a court order to produce the individual in court for a review of his case was violated. Trinidad and Tobago may well have no laws governing the deportation of refugees, but we do have rules, procedures and practices. In relation to these, we must act properly and judiciously. Why the haste? Why the reliance on a sham “consent” obtained from people who were detained and who were, therefore, in no real position to choose otherwise?
The State has a duty to comply with court orders and to, more generally, act in a reasonable way. It cannot arbitrarily take it upon itself to truncate the legitimate expectations of people who may have started the process of applying for refugee status. Nor can it deny people who intended to do so by hiding under the fig leaf of its own failure to enact laws to regulate that procedure. The State – through its immigration officials – cannot tell Parliament that it regularly informs refugee-seekers of their options while adopting a completely different process. That is not the rule of the law. That is arbitrary conduct.
How many of the deportees were informed of their options or given legal advice or provided with documentation which they could properly read without the aid of a translator? Absent any specific laws, the State still must err on the side of morality and in conformance with the spirit of our international treaty commitments. How is our foreign policy regarding asylum seekers being determined? How is our foreign policy in relation to Venezuela being devised?
In the end, what is most disturbing about the deportation is how it reveals a complete disregard for human rights, betraying a callousness that borders on a kind of xenophobic malice. These individuals have arrived in this country fleeing the unimaginable conditions that have been brought about by the undemocratic Nicolas Maduro regime. Trinidad and Tobago, which opened its doors to our Caribbean neighbours in their time of need, cannot bury its head in the sand. We cannot pretend that nothing is amiss next door in Venezuela. By sending these individuals back in the way we have, we become complicit in a great wrong.