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Monday 21 October 2019
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Commentary

‘Refugee’ and other terms

REGINALD DUMAS

THE WORD “refugee” is so bandied about these days that I thought I would look at how the United Nations describes that and related terms.

The definition of “refugee” appears in Article 1(A)(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention. A refugee is a person who, “(a)s a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

That definition was modified by a 1967 protocol, which at Article 1(2) states: “For the purpose of the present protocol, the term ‘refugee’ shall…mean any person within the definition of article 1 of the convention as if the words ‘As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and…’ and the words ‘as a result of such events’ in article 1(A)(2) were omitted.”

The Venezuelans in our midst have expressed no fear of racial or other persecution in Venezuela; rather, they say that times are very hard there and that they have left in order to get a better life, send money and goods back home etc. In other words, they certainly do not, on their own say-so, qualify to be called “refugees.” So what are they? The UN High Commission for Refugees explains.

It draws a distinction between “refugees” and “migrants,” warning that conflating the two could have “serious consequences…” On refugees, it naturally refers to the 1951 and 1967 documents. On migrants, it says this: “Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work…Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return…”

There may be some among them who might be entitled to refugee status, but the overwhelming majority of the recently arrived Venezuelans are clearly migrants (these days called “economic migrants”).

I have also been hearing that TT has legal obligations towards refugees. We acceded to the 1951 and 1967 treaties on November 10, 2000. So far as I can ascertain, however, we have ratified neither, and I have heard the argument that we are therefore not bound to implement them. What is accession? What is ratification?

The UN Treaty Collection says that accession is “the act whereby a state accepts the offer or the opportunity to become a party to a treaty already negotiated and signed by other states.” Ratification is defined as “the international act whereby a state indicates its consent to be bound to a treaty if the parties intended to show their consent by such an act.”

But was our ratification of the treaties necessary? The UN says that accession “has the same legal effect as ratification.” Even if it did not, don’t we have an ethical obligation to respect the provisions of the two documents? Why, after all, did we accede to them in the first place?

We are also hearing more and more about migrant workers. Conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) define a migrant worker as “a person who migrates or has migrated from one country to another with a view to being employed otherwise than on his own account and includes any person regularly admitted as a migrant worker.”

Some of our citizens, who every year do (or have done) a three-month stint picking and packing fruit on Canadian farms, fall in that category. And we ratified the original ILO Convention on the issue in 1963.

But what of women – from Colombia or the Dominican Republic, say – who I am told regularly and voluntarily (they are not being trafficked, apparently) come to TT for sex trade purposes? The World Health Organization defines sex workers as “women, men and transgendered people who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services…” Are these women migrant workers? Or employed on their own account?

But our Immigration Act declares prostitutes (another name for sex workers?) and homosexuals as among the classes whose entry we prohibit. How does an immigration officer decide who is a prostitute? (Or a homosexual, for that matter?) Does an inability to make such a decision account for what I hear is the large number of foreign sex workers in the country? Or are there other more pertinent factors? Which do not include bribery of immigration officers, surely?

I may have more questions.

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