ATTORNEYS for 70 Venezuelan nationals detained at the recently designated Heliport Immigration Station in Chaguaramas, are demanding their release by no later than 3 pm on Wednesday. The foreigners were held at a bar in St James on July 9.
The lawyers also warn that because of their clients' illegal detention – for 15 days – before the heliport was designated an immigration detention facility, the 70 will be entitled to damages.
In a pre-action protocol letter from Quantum Legal law firm, sent Monday to National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds, the attorneys are demanding the release of the 70 or that they be placed on orders of supervision pending the determination of their application to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Quantum Legal also called on Hinds not to deport the group until their refugee status with the UNHCR is determined. They asked for the information the minister used when he issued orders of deportation for the group on July 24.
The attorneys also called on Hinds to give effect to a 2014 national policy on refugee protection or say if this policy has been revoked.
Hinds was asked to provide a copy of the investigative report regarding a detainee who alleged she was sexually assaulted, and to “act in a manner consistent with requirements of the waiver and/or remediation under the US Leahy Law which refers to statutory provisions prohibiting the US Government from using funds to assist units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating a unit for gross human rights violations."
Hinds was directed to consult with the US Embassy for assistance on Leahy Law and “risk-mitigate the socio-economic impact on TT's economy.”
Quantum Legal further asked for a copy of the written plan which informed the US Department of State to grant a waiver as was noted in its recent 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report which saw TT avoiding a downgrade to Tier 3.
“Twenty-two (22) days have already elapsed since their detention on July 9, 2023. Still, there is no evidence of any arrangements for the potential claimants’ actual deportation, that is, any scheduled date or any arrangement whatsoever for their deportation," the lawyers said.
In the letter to Hinds, attorneys said the detention of the 70, and the issuance of deportation orders were “tantamount” to penalties for their illegal entry.
They also quoted the various international laws and conventions on refugees and how they applied to TT.
They say the 70 had a legitimate expectation that the Government would abide by the 2014 policy on the treatment of refugees although there are no domestic refugee laws despite TT being a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
“...There needs to be more national legislation regarding the treatment of refugees/asylum seekers.”
The attorneys also said because of the absence of domestic law on refugees, the minister’s actions were evaluated by international laws and conventions, but warned, “One may call it a classical ‘catch-22’ application, as escaping your obligations to the UNHCR is impossible.
“You cannot do one thing until you do another, but you cannot do the second thing until you do the first.”
The law firm challenged the minister's authorisation to detain the Venezuelans and order their deportation on “ public policy and interest grounds,” saying, instead, his actions had the potential to cause “ irreparable harm to the economy.
The letter urged the government to consider any cessation in funding by international agencies, particularly in light of the current status of the Dragon gas deal and reminding of the natural gas shortage in TT.
“This has the impact of imploding the economy of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Please note it is our contention that funding ought not to be cut to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago as we contend there is currently a national security emergency.”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.
A handful have been released by the High Court on the basis that their detention at the heliport was illegal since, at the time, it had not yet been designated an immigration detention facility by the minister in accordance with the Immigration Act.
This was only done after attorneys for five of them rushed to court for a writ of habeas corpus. The designation was made at midnight two Sundays ago by the minister.
Attorneys from Quantum Legal who are seeking the interests of the 70 are Blaine Sobrian, Criston J Williams, and Shivanand Mohan.
The letter detailed as interested parties, the Prime Minister, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the acting Chief Immigration Officer, the Foreign Affairs Minister, the Attorney General, the head of the UNHCR’s TT office and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in TT.
It is not certain if a copy of the pre-action letter was sent to each of the interested parties.
There were unconfirmed reports that some of the detained Venezuelan nationals have embarked on a hunger strike at the facility in Chaguaramas.
Conditions at the heliport
In their pre-action letter, the attorneys said from their instructions, the heliport was unfit for habitation or survival.
They documented accounts given to them by detainees at the facility.
One woman, they said was yet to receive medical care or treatment for a lump in her breast which causes her pain and discomfort. Another has said meals provided are stolen after being delivered to the heliport.
“The conditions at the Heliport have worsened. No drinkable water is provided. The detainees have no alternative but to drink the water from the pipe which is contaminated.
“The water that flows from the pipe is yellow or brown. The toilet is leaking water like a river. Food provided by the facility is spoilt. People are not getting food.”
The letter also said officials at the heliport were telling detainees to bring their own cleaning supplies.
“The food provided by the facilities is not fit for consumption and is spoilt. The detainees would be fed peas and rice and bread and sardine, but they are spoilt.
“The detainees would get sick and suffer stomach pain after eating the food provided at the facilities.
“As a result, the detainees are reliant on food provided by their families. Although the families are delivering food at the heliport, they are not being received by the detainees.”
The letter also said when they do receive the meals, the food is interfered with and items are removed.
“This food is being taken and/or interfered with… On occasions, food provided by families would be refused delivery and should family members persist in delivering the food, they would be threatened with detention and deportation by the officers.
“The families of the detainees would also provide their loved ones with toiletries such as soap, towels, and a change of clothing but they do not receive them because it is taken.”
The letter alleged that one particular official at the facility “treats the detainees ‘very bad.’”
It said they are cursed at and told they were “ nasty, stink and smell.”
Medication has also been taken away while those with other health ailments are not provided with treatment.
“The detainees are denied access to doctors and are told that there are no doctors at the heliport. No doctor comes to visit the facilities. There are eighty to over 100 persons crammed in one room.
“The bathroom is nauseating and filthy to the extent that it emits a pungent smell and when one stands in the toilet, one’s feet would get wet.
“Whenever the detainees complain to the officers, they are threatened. Women and men are housed together and so the women are forced to change their clothing in the presence of the other sex to their discomfort.
“There is no privacy, and the male detainees would watch the female detainees dress and undress. The blankets they are provided with for sleeping are dirty.”
The letter also noted that female detainees are not given menstrual care products, toilet paper or sanitiser unless their family provides them.
“Detainees are sick, suffering from coughing, scratching of skin, fever,” was the account given to the attorneys by their clients.
The letter also referenced the statement of another Venezuelan detainee previously held at the heliport facility who alleged she was sexually exploited by Coast Guard officers.
After the woman’s account was published in a daily newspaper, a media briefing was held at the Ministry of National Security to denounce the allegations.
However, the woman’s account has been repeated in Friday’s pre-action letter. According to the woman - who has been named “Superwoman” by the law firm - the only way she or other female detainees could make contact with their families was by providing sexual services.
“There was only one way that I or any other female detainee could make contact with our families…”
She explained the process to get a phone call and said, “I did not know that this would have been one of the worst decisions of my life.”
In her account, the woman claimed after she was allowed to make contact with relatives by social media and not a phone call, she was taken to a room where she was beaten and sexually assaulted.
“I was bleeding, bruised, and in pain.”
She said she was not taken back to the bunker and allowed to climb the fence, “I think this is because of the poor condition I was in,” where she made her escape.
At the media briefing to denounce the woman’s account, immigration officials said she had been
first held in a Freeport bar on March 27 as an illegal immigrant without documents and then sent to the heliport.
Later, on April 4, she could not be accounted for during a headcount at the facility and was deemed missing. A report was made to the police.
Her boyfriend, in a social media post on April 6, had alleged she was being abused while at the facility.
The matter was referred to the special victims' unit, which began inquiries.
The police then found her at a Chaguanas bar on May 26 after which she was sent to the Immigration Detention Centre and then into the care of the Counter-Trafficking Unit.
"No sexual exploitation was disclosed at that location," Snr Supt Claire Guy-Alleyne, head of the police’s special victims unit told the briefing.