Report: Coast Guard officers facing disciplinary procedures over claims of sexual exploitation of migrants

The Chaguaramas Heliport - File photo
The Chaguaramas Heliport - File photo

A member or members of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG) are now facing disciplinary procedures over claims of sexual exploitation of a Venezuelan woman held at the Chaguaramas Heliport for illegal entry to Trinidad, said a report laid in the House of Representatives on March 1.

Sport Minister Shamfa Cudjoe-Lewis laid the Sixth Report of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Human Rights, Equity and Diversity chaired by Dr Muhammad Yunus Ibrahim. Concerns were raised on the topic, sexual exploitation of migrants while in state custody.

The Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) had highlighted public reports of the sexual abuse of female detainees at the heliport.

The report said days before the committee’s visits to the heliport and the Immigrant Detention Centre (IDC), Aripo, on June 9, 2023, the police publicly said there was no evidence of sexual exploitation at the heliport.

"The police service was unable to confirm or deny reports that a female Venezuelan detainee had been sexually assaulted by a Coast Guard officer."

However, the report added a notable revelation.

"During the site visit to the heliport, coast guard officials acknowledged the complaint of sexual misconduct and explained that disciplinary proceedings were ongoing at that time.

"While visiting the common areas used by migrants held at the heliport, the committee also noted that there was a white board on which many obscenities and sexually explicit expressions had been scribbled in Spanish. This raised the question as to whether any actions had occurred at the heliport that reflected what was written."

The committee spoke to female Venezuelan detainees at the IDC in Aripo, previously held at the heliport.

"They expressed negative feelings about the treatment they had received there (heliport), owing to an environment lacking the requisite care for the dignity of detainees.

"When asked whether there had been anything about their detention at the heliport that they would describe as inappropriate, the female detainees mentioned 'horrible' practices but were hesitant to give precise details."

The report reckoned the immediate repatriation of Venezuelan asylum-seekers "inadvertently creates conditions conducive to sexual exploitation of the said migrants."

Detained migrants were not held for long a time, maybe reducing their discomfort but also making follow-ups on their complaints of inappropriate conduct by their guards "all but impossible," the report said.

"This reality, in turn, is likely to incentivise the very inappropriate conduct for which coast guard officers were facing disciplinary procedures at the time of the site visit."

The report cited the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights saying the State had a duty to protect a person's dignity and physical and mental integrity from acts by people including those acting in their official capacity.

The report said, "This further emphasises the gravity of the numerous sexual abuse claims made against those given the responsibility, who are therefore people acting in their official capacity as agents of the State.

"The inclusion of 'acts that cause mental suffering to the victim' as part of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is also relevant to the reported sexual abuse at the heliport and the 'mental anguish' associated with it, as highlighted by the CCHR."

The report warned against a lack of proper training of detention staff.

"It is unmistakably clear that suspected sexual exploitation of migrants while in detention by agents of the State is in no way whatsoever part of the overarching goals of Trinidad and Tobago’s policy regarding migrant repatriation."

The JSC made recommendations.

It urged the Ministry of National Security to ensure coast guard officers got training in basic human-rights law, including refugee rights plus the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR’s) Practical Manual on Monitoring Immigration Detention (PMMID).

"The ministry should provide Parliament with an update on the status of the Coast Guard’s disciplinary proceedings further to the complaint of sexual misconduct against its officer(s).

"The ministry and Coast Guard should collaborate to develop a whistle-blowing mechanism as a means of allowing personnel assigned to supervise detainees at the heliport to anonymously raise concerns about possible abuse.

"Citing the allegations of Coast Guard staff impropriety towards migrant detainees, the CCHR has advocated for independent monitoring to ensure greater accountability and transparency."

The need for transparency was underlined by heliport detainees protesting a lack of amenities plus the committee getting similar complaints from Aripo detainees.

The ministry told the committee that immigration officers visited detainees daily and that human-rights groups might request to visit detainees.

However, the report cited the CCHR's concerns.

“This (heliport) facility is housed within a military base, where access is restricted which is in violation of human rights standards and principles which emphasise that access be granted to family members, attorneys and humanitarian/human rights organisations.”

The centre said detainees should only be at recognised places of detention, and friends and relatives should be able to know where they are.

When a judge ruled the heliport was not a lawfully designated detention facility, the Minister of National Security (Fitzgerald Hinds) then designated it officially.

The report said, "The ministry should report to Parliament on the following: The adjustments made at the heliport since its designation by the minister as an immigration detention centre, and the scope for the implementation of independent monitoring of IDCs in TT."

The report said at the time of the JSC's public hearing, no-one had been convicted under the Trafficking in Persons Act.

"In their respective May 2023 written submissions to the committee, both the ministry and police service identified the length of time taken for cases to be heard in court as one of the major barriers to prosecution of sexual exploitation and trafficking of migrants. The ministry estimated the average time span at 2-3 years."

The report recalled a 2021 review of human rights urging TT to beef up laws and resources to curb human trafficking.

"The ministry should continue discussions with the Judiciary on the possible creation of a court specifically for human trafficking-related offences and provide an update on same to Parliament."


"Report: Coast Guard officers facing disciplinary procedures over claims of sexual exploitation of migrants"

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