Reports of the rapid deterioration of conditions at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) are a serious cause for concern and reflect a deeper failure by the State to rationalise the immigration system.
That system needs to become far more transparent and accountable, particularly on the matter of asylum and the alarmingly high estimates of illegal immigrants resident in the country.
According to a Newsday report published on Friday, sources closely linked to the IDC facility say it is affected by the absence of an air-condition system, leaking roof, defective surveillance cameras and a faulty electronic gate, which, for the longest while, was being operated manually. While there has reportedly been a marked reduction in the number of detainees (73 men and 18 women), there is enough to suggest conditions remain deplorable.
Not only do these matters raise questions about whether the facilities have become inhumane, but they also point to tremendous security risks.
People housed at the facility include Jamaicans, Russians, Haitians, Vincentians, Venezuelans, Grenadians and Chinese nationals.
There are further reports, however, that people who have regularly been subject to immigration controls here, Cubans who, since a 2016 US order blocking their access to the country, have been forced to find new migratory routes. Other nationalities of unauthorised immigrants frequently cited by officials include Guyanese and Ghanaians.
With high estimates of illegal immigrants resident in Trinidad and Tobago, the potential for breaches from the IDC is a serious matter.
Citing a newspaper article that quoted former minister of national security Gary Griffith, a recent report by the Swiss-based Global Detention Project says it is estimated that there are 100,000 illegal immigrants in the country. However, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there were only 49,900 international migrants in the country as of 2015.
Though the discrepancy between these numbers is high, it is clear enough that there is a substantial presence in our country. This means more is at stake given lapses at the IDC in Aripo.
Things are particularly messier when we consider the lack of a clear, centralised policy when it comes to the key issue of asylum.
According to the Global Detention Project, an international group based in Switzerland, non-governmental sources report that asylum seekers are also placed in administrative detention.
While Trinidad and Tobago is a party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, “it has not adopted implementing legislation nor established a national refugee status determination procedure.”
As a result, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its local NGO partner (Living Water Community) have the responsibility for identifying and providing assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. However, transfer of refugee status determination procedure from the UNHCR to the government began in June 2014 after the adoption of the National Policy to Address Refugee and Asylum Matters.
The first phase included the creation of an ad hoc Refugee Unit in 2015. In 2014, 161 new asylum applications were registered by the UNHCR and Living Water.
This arrangement has the advantage of not placing more burdens on local law enforcement agencies that would have to conduct checks into applicants. However, it effectively means the population cannot hold anyone to account for these matters since they fall within the remit of the UNHCR and a private Roman Catholic organisation.
The overall, picture, therefore is one of commess, which needs to be addressed. And soon.