Judge powerless to order return of Venezuelan children, women to TT

Reginald Armour, SC, who defended the State in the hearing of the deported Venezuelan group.  -
Reginald Armour, SC, who defended the State in the hearing of the deported Venezuelan group. -

A HIGH COURT judge has been told she cannot order the return to Trinidad and Tobago of a group of Venezuelan children and women deported on Sunday.

On Sunday night, Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams ordered the Chief of Defence Staff to “produce the bodies” of the group of 16 children and nine women on Monday in a writ of habeas corpus filed on their behalf.

But Newsday was told that on Sunday the 16 children and nine women were put in two unregistered boasts and escorted out of Trinidad and Tobago waters by the Coast Guard.

The group were allegedly held last Tuesday and were kept at different police stations. They tested negative for covid19.

They were taken to the Cedros police station on Saturday. Attorneys acting for them filed a writ of habeas corpus to prevent their deportation.

But the women and children were still sent back to Venezuela.

Early on Monday morning, a joint mission of civilians, both Trinidadians and Venezuelans, went looking for the boats to try to escort the stranded pirogues back to Trinidad. Just before 1 pm, Newsday was told the boat had been spotted in TT waters.

On Monday, their lawyer Nafeesa Mohammed again pleaded with the local authorities to adopt a humanitarian and human rights approach, since the situation involved children.

When the matter was called on Monday, the lead counsel for the Chief Immigration Officer, the Attorney General, Minister of National Security and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) told the judge the Venezuelans had been “out of sight” of the Coast Guard by 11.20 am on Sunday and were “not in the custody of either the CDS or the Defence Force since that time.”

While he could not say exactly where they were, Reginald Armour, SC, was clear that "to the best of my instructions, they are in Venezuela,” and at 10.04 pm on Sunday, when the court’s order was made, “They were not in the jurisdiction of TT."

He told the judge in such circumstances she no longer had jurisdiction in the matter.

Armour gave a timeline of events, saying the group were in the custody of the Coast Guard at 9.25 am on Sunday, and at 11.20 am, they were put on boats and taken to the sea border between TT and Venezuela. By 11.20 am, they were out of the Coast Guard’s sight and officers returned to the TT coastline at 1.39 pm.

Mohammed, who is representing the families of the group, in response to the issue of who should pay costs, said their information was that at 1 pm, the group was at an island called La Barra, in Venezuelan coastal waters, on a jetty protected only by a thatched hut.

Later during the virtual hearing, Mohammed said her information was that the boat carrying the children, which reportedly became stranded sometime on Sunday, was 20 minutes away from Trinidad’s coastline in TT’s territorial waters.

She asked for the matter to be stood down so that the Coast Guard could use its radar capabilities to find out if this was indeed so.

She pleaded for the children to be reunited with their parents in TT, some of whom are registered with the Government,while others are UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) card-holders.

“Those children are on a jetty. One mother spoke to her child and was told the child vomited out in the open seas,” she said.

She also asked for the local authorities to communicate with their counterparts in Venezuela for their return to TT, even if the children were in Venezuelan territorial waters.

She described as “disheartening,” the element of “stealth” was used to remove the children when the authorities were aware that the matter was engaging the court’s attention.

“There is still opportunity to locate these children,” she said, as she also pointed out that the chief immigration officer had not issued a detention order, so the “lawfulness” of their detention and deportation was still up in the air.

But in response to a question from Quinlan-Williams on whether the court could make an order, Armour said she could not, since her jurisdiction was moot.

Quinlan-Williams said it was “a bit concerning” and “disturbing” that the court’s order was made at midday on Sunday and the chief immigration officer was served about an hour later, yet it was difficult to get information on where the children were.

“I just can’t understand how agents of the State cannot account in answer to a court order. The police don’t know who they handed them over to; they say the immigration division. The immigration division says, ‘No, not us.’ It was like crazy,” she said.

Her eventual ruling was that despite the circumstances of the migrants’ detention, since it appeared they were no longer in TT’s jurisdiction, she no longer had jurisdiction.

She made a cost order that each party pay its own costs.

On Monday, police issued a release announcing seven Venezuelans had been arrested in Woodland.

The release said police on patrol saw two men, two women and three children on Pluck Road, Woodland on Sunday.

It said when the officers reached the Godineau Bridge, they saw a number of people disembarking from a pirogue. When the officers were seen, the boat sped off. leaving behind the Venezuelans, who were arrested.

They were said to be from Tucupita. The seven were taken to the Siparia Health Facility where they were swabbed for covid19 and will remain in quarantine while the immigration division starts the process for their repatriation.


"Judge powerless to order return of Venezuelan children, women to TT"

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