A HIGH COURT judge has ordered the release of six of the 100-plus Venezuelan migrants held at a bar in St James on July 9.
Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams made the order on the basis that the Defence Force Heliport in Chaguaramas was not a designated immigration detention centre.
“The rule of law should be that any national, in this case, the claimant, shouldn't be carried anywhere, anyhow, because they are carried there…We are a society governed by rules and regulations.”
The judge’s comments came after a spirited discussion on the designation of the heliport as an immigration detention centre.
According to the judge, evidence led on behalf of the Chief of Defence Staff – who was named as the defendant in the habeas corpus applications – did not show that the minister (of National Security) had not designated the heliport as an immigration detention centre.
“In what circumstances can the court find that her detention is lawful? The applicant is detained at a place not designated as an immigration centre today.
“The designation has to be approved by the minister. The return (response by the State to the application) does not say anywhere that the minister has approved the heliport as an immigration centre.
“Based on the application and evidence that supported it, the court orders the immediate release of the applicant,” the judge said at a hearing just before 10.30 pm on Monday.
Between 10.30 pm on Monday and 9 am on Tuesday, Justice Quinlan-Williams ordered the release of the six migrants who filed the applications on Sunday.
The judge began hearing the applications at 2 pm Sunday, then again at 3 pm on Monday and later at 8 pm before she ordered the release of one of the six. On Tuesday morning, when the applications for the other five came up for hearing, she ordered their release.
It was the contention of attorney John Heath, SC, who represented the CDS that the heliport was a lawful detention centre according to the Immigration Act. He also argued that the CDS was not the proper party to the application filed by attorneys Gerald Ramdeen and Dayadai Harripaul for the six. He contended it should have been the Chief Immigration Officer.
In response to questions by the judge, Heath said he had no instructions if there was a declassification of the heliport as a detention centre established in June 2020 by the Minister of National Security to house individuals detained by the immigration authority during the covid19 pandemic.
He admitted while the pandemic period had come to an end, he said it continued to be an immigration station outside the pandemic and was considered a “place designated by the minister” under the act on the presumption of regularity.
“Is it an immigration station today?” the judge questioned, “He must designate or authorise, it must be obvious. We must know it.” The judge said that based on the evidence before her, the designation had an end date when the pandemic was officially declared over.
The six were part of a larger group who were given deportation orders and told they would be deported this week. On the morning of July 9, 196 migrants, asylum seekers and some who were registered with the UN’s Refugee Agency were detained at the Apex Bar along the Western Main Road in St James during a joint police operation.
So far, some 60 Venezuelan nationals have been released.
Some of the others are represented by attorneys from the law firm Quantum Legal.
In affidavit evidence, the conditions at the heliport were described as “horrendous and inhumane.”
The migrants being held there are allowed phone calls. A friend of one of the women detained claimed she told him they were being treated worse than animals and were being mocked because of the sexuality of those detained.
Those held at Apex Bar had attended an LGBTQ party when they were arrested during the raid.
Another of the detainees is a 29-year-old attorney from Venezuela who came to Trinidad in 2022.
An affidavit filed for her said she went to the party on a friend’s invitation and “feels worse than a caged animal” at the heliport.
She is also registered with the UNHCR.
In a recent ruling, a High Court judge said obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the principles of non-refoulment do not apply to TT, as they were not incorporated in domestic law.
This ruling by Justice Frank Seepersad cleared the way for refugees and asylum seekers to be deported if they contravened immigration laws.
Also in evidence before Justice Quinlan-Williams, acting chief immigration officer Vera Persad said nationals or citizens of Venezuela are required to have valid visas to enter TT, their passports and to work in TT, they must have a valid work permit.