AT MIDNIGHT on Monday, hours after a High Court judge held that the Defence Force Heliport in Chaguaramas was not an immigration detention centre, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds designated the facility as one.
Notice of the minister’s designation of the heliport as an immigration detention centre as provided for by the Immigration Act, was made known during a hearing on Wednesday, before Justice Frank Seepersad. The judge was presiding over a habeas corpus application filed by one of the hundreds of Venezuelans housed at the military facility since July 9, after they were arrested and detained at a bar in St James.
Between Monday and Tuesday, Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams ordered the release of six Venezuelans who were kept at the heliport after they were arrested at the Apex Bar in St James.
She held that the facility was not a designated immigration detention centre.
“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.
The heliport was established in June 2020 by then-National Security Minister Stuart Young as a quarantine and immigration detention facility to house individuals detained by the immigration authority during the covid19 pandemic.
Quinlan-Williams said based on the evidence before her, the designation had an end date when the pandemic was officially declared over.
The applicants before Quinlan-Williams and Seepersad were represented by attorneys Gerald Ramdeen and Dayadai Harripaul in the habeas corpus application which called on the Chief of Defence Staff – who was named as the defendant in the habeas corpus application – to justify their detention at the facility.
On Wednesday, attorney Sharad Raghunath, of the Chief State Solicitor’s office, who represented CDS, read from a letter from the minister, dated July 25, which advised that he had designated the Defence Force Heliport as an immigration station in keeping with the provisions of the act.
The letter, which Newsday has seen, was addressed to CDS Air Vice Marshall Darryl Daniel. Hinds, who signed the letter, advised that he had designated the heliport as an immigration station effective July 25, 2023, at 12 am until otherwise declared.
She also said the State was resisting the request for the court to make a declaration on the basis that the detention of Samih Tarek Benitez was now legal.
Although not ordering Benitez’s since a deportation order was issued, Seepersad did declare that his detention from July 9-24 at the heliport was unlawful.
In an oral decision, Seepersad, “The factual matrix of this case is deeply troubling and there exists no lawful or rational basis for the applicant's detention at the heliport between the period July 9-24, 2023.
“It is patently obvious that the order of then Minister of National Security Young to have the heliport declared as an immigration detention centre was limited to the duration of this country's mandatory quarantine measures in response to the covid19 pandemic.
“After the pandemic ended, there was an evident, unacceptable and unexplained failure by the current minister to make a declaration as to the continued use of the heliport as an immigration centre.
“In the circumstances, there can be no doubt that the applicant's detention at the heliport, being a place not designated as an immigration station or a place designated by the minister under the provisions of the Immigration Act, from July 9-24, 2023. was reckless and unlawful.”
Seepersad referred to his recent ruling on the State’s failure to anchor the obligations imposed under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the principles of non-refoulment into the domestic legislative landscape. Seepersad because of this, those obligations expressed in the convention cannot be enforced to the benefit of refugees and asylum seekers.
That ruling cleared the way for refugees and asylum seekers to be deported if they contravened immigration laws.
“As a result, migrants who have entered into the jurisdiction illegally and who have not availed themselves of the amnesty afforded via registration can be deported notwithstanding their refugee-status recognition by the UNHCR.
“As disheartening as such a position may be, that is the law.”
Seepersad said migrants needed to appreciate the reality of this and take charge of their circumstances by either voluntarily returning to their homelands or risking deportation.
However, he said, “The State must end its vacillation and either enforce the existing or immediately formulate a humanitarian policy, honour the convention obligations and enact the requisite enabling legislation.
“The failure to take decisive action is long overdue and amounts to a dereliction of duty.
“Until the latter scenario is engaged, the law must be enforced but deportation exercises must be engaged under the rule of law.
“In this Republic, regard for the rule of law is paramount, and this court will fearlessly defend same.”
The judge also ordered the State to pay Benitez’s legal costs since he said it was clear that “someone failed to recognise the limitation of the minister and nobody did anything until Sunday,” when proceedings before Justice Quinlan-Williams were filed.
“There seems to be a situation where this applicant and hundreds of others were kept in the heliport at a facility not designated under the legislation at the time.”
On July 6, in response to Seepersad’s ruling on the status of refugees and asylum seekers in TT, Hinds said it did not mean they were no longer protected by the Constitution even if they were registered with the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR.)
The applicants before the two judges 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.
They had attended an LGBTQ party when they were arrested during the raid and in their applications, they complained about the conditions at the heliport.