(Trinidad Express) As turmoil continues to plague countries globally, including neighbouring Venezuela, more people are turning to Trinidad and Tobago as a haven from pain and persecution as evident in a drastic increase in the numbers of those seeking refuge.
This is according to data provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Human trafficking is also an issue, with cases of trafficked women being referred to the Counter Trafficking Unit of this country’s National Security Ministry.
Ruben Barbado, protection officer with the UNHCR, and Nikita Mohammed, assistant co-ordinator at the Living Water Community, sat down with the Sunday Express at the United Nations Port of Spain office last Friday and shared statistics.
They expressed hope the Government would move forward to enact legislation to help with the refugee crisis gripping the world.
Barbado said there has been a “substantive” increase in people seeking asylum in Trinidad.
In 2016, there was a total of 163 asylum applications.
In 2017, in just the first three months, the figures have more than doubled, with some 336 asylum applications being made, with 60 per cent of this figure being men.
Barbado said Cubans remain the largest numbers of asylum seekers, but there have also been increases from Venezuela and from over 19 nationalities such as Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc.
There are currently 640 refugees, asylum seekers and other persons of concern in Trinidad and Tobago.
Barbado said Trinidad and Tobago is one of the largest refugee-receiving countries in the Caribbean, but third in the region next to Belize and the Dominican Republic.
These two countries have legislation in place to deal with refugees.
In response to the growing number of asylum seekers in T&T, the Government adopted a refugee policy in 2016 and UNHCR established an office in January 2016.
Asylum applications in Trinidad and Tobago over a five-year period are as follows:
As of May 2017—336, with 60 per cent being men.
Refugees are people outside their country of origin because of feared persecution, conflict, violence or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and who as a result require “international protection”.
Barbado pointed out that globally, millions of people are fleeing their homes, with the UNHCR figures at the end of 2016 showing 65.6 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide and, of this, some 22.5 million are refugees.
He noted ten million are stateless and, of this lot, only a mere 189,300 refugees have been resettled.
The UNHCR has been collaborating with the Living Water Community since 1989 and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) identifies and refers persons of concern to the UNHCR.
The UNHCR also works closely with the Immigration Division of the National Security Ministry.
Barbado said Trinidad and Tobago does not have legislation to legally help refugees, but he said a refugee policy adopted in 2014 by the Cabinet envisions the Government providing recognised refugees a permit of stay, work authorisation and access to public assistance.
Trinidad and Tobago is signatory to a United Nations 1951 Convention which speaks to affording protection to refugees. The next step is to make this draft policy legislation. Barbado said other Caricom countries are looking to what Trinidad and Tobago is doing in order to replicate it and put it into practice.
He said measures are being taken to create structures to assist the Government in treating with refugees and to make way for the legislation when it reaches that point.
Mohammed said some advancement has already been made with the establishment of a refugee unit under the National Security Ministry, and UNHCR has been doing training of officials at the Immigration Division.
Barbado said asylum seekers would make their way through this region to seek refuge before resettling in places such as the United States and Canada, but political changes have made less places available for resettlement.
He said there are five people at the Aripo Detention Centre who hold asylum certificates from the UNHCR.
Asked if they should be detained, Barbado noted there is no legislation, but the certificates issued by UNHCR are recognised and honoured by the Government.
Since there is no legislation ,they are still subject to the Immigration Act—the only way for them to remain in the country would be through an order of supervision.
Barbado said the UNHCR’s position is to avoid people being detained as much as possible.
However, he said there would be cases where people are detained as the authorities seek to validate their country of origin and other information.
He said there is also a process to determine whether the person is a refugee or not and once it is determined they are, they are released.