Several foreign national who have completed custodial sentences for entering this country illegally or overstaying their time, are languishing behind bars at the Aripo Detention Centre since the government of their respective home nations as well as the TT government are both unwilling to foot the extremely high cost to deport them back to their homeland.
A Sunday Newsday investigation has revealed that the cost to send one foreigner, especially those living in countries on the African continent on the other side of the world, is upwards of $100,000.
And when you consider the fact that several dozen foreigners are at this detention centre, you can understand the huge cost involved.
The detainees who are now in limbo, do not know what is in store for them and if they will ever be reunited with loved ones back home. National Security sources told Sunday Newsday that those most affected are those from African nations such as Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana. In fact, Africans make up the largest contingent at the Aripo Detention Centre.
Contacted for comment, Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon told Sunday Newsday the situation is worrying to him and at times it is frustrating since he has been making every effort to have these detainees sent home. He said correspondence was sent to the Nigerian High Commission as well as the Nigerian Government, but the feedback received was that most African countries are not willing to spend money to have their countrymen returned home.
Dillon said it cost the state over $100,000 to return a detainee to any of the African countries and this could no longer be sustained. “We just cannot afford this. We have had to make serious cuts and our focus is bringing crime down and restoring calm to our own citizens affected by crime,” Dillon said.
Dillon said that he is cognizant of the detainees’ mental suffering in being separated from loved ones including wives and children for months and even years. He is determined to find a solution.
Dillon noted that even detainees from Venezuela are experiencing difficulty in being sent back to their homeland, which is less than ten nautical miles from TT, because the Venezuelan government has expressed no interest in spending money to bring them home.
There are about six Venezuelans at the Aripo Detention Centre. Other detainees hail from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, China and several Caribbean countries.
Dillon said what the government is seeking to do, is to ensure that the detainees are kept safe and relatively comfortable while efforts continue to be made to have them deported back to their homeland.
With this in mind, government allocated funds to repair the detention centre. The area where female detainees are housed received an 80 per cent upgrade, with new toilet facilities and air conditioning. The area where the male detainees are kept has also been upgraded.
Dillon last week toured the detention centre and was satisfied with the upgrade work. Dillon said some of the detainees wept as they spoke to him and said they have families whom they have not seen in months. Some expressed bitterness on being told their home government did not want to spend money to bring them back home.
“We are exploring every avenue in an attempt to bring relief to these people. We have asked that their loved ones make efforts to raise the funds to have them returned home. But at the same time we are trying other avenues to assist these detainees,” Dillon said.
On June 9, then Ag Minister of National Security Dennis Moses revealed in Parliament that there are 15,042 people living and working illegally in TT. He said the government has granted permanent residency to 30,200 people up to May last year.
However, between January 1 and May 1, Moses said, there were 15,042 illegals comprising people from Venezuela, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, China, 65 Guyana, 39 Nigeria and several Caribbean islands including Jamaica.
Head of the Emancipation Support Committee Khafra Kambon told Sunday Newsday, “it is expensive to send detainees back to Africa because you have to send two officers for every one detainee. So when you factor in that you are paying airline tickets for three people you can understand how high the cost is.
“and the question of getting the Nigerian government to pay for it...that will not happen. The Nigeria government is cash-strapped right now and even if it was not so, it will still be a challenge because you have so many people from Nigeria and other parts of Africa who are undocumented migrants in other countries.”
Kambon said the government needs to adopt a discriminating approach as to which illegal immigrant will be sent home and which can be assimilated into TT society especially owing to the fact that many illegal immigrants end up in relationships with locals and start a family.
“You have families here who are suffering because their loved one is locked up for being an undocumented person. These people can be processed and receive legal status so as to ease the burden on the state of providing for so many people being kept at the detention centre,” Kambon said.
He suggested there should be a case-by-case assessment of the detainees and said that from his investigations, some of the detainees from African countries have been at the detention centre in Aripo for as long as four years.