News day / Last month one of the advocacy groups trying to help, The Muslims of Trinidad and Tobago, called on Government to take in 1,000 Syrian refugees. But representatives of the NGO, Living Water Community (LWC), and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) say that legislation is required to protect the hundreds of refugees already in the country from exploitation, and assist a community which is set to quadruple in size in just three years.
Sunday Newsday was apprised of the local refugee situation during a recent visit to LWC offices in Port-of-Spain.
Coordinator of the ministry for migrants at LWC, Rochelle Nakhid, reported that for about 30 years the Catholic NGO has worked with asylum seekers and refugees as well as other migrants seeking help such as victims of trafficking or those in the country irregularly.
She said LWC does everything including financial assistance, social services and finding employment to aid these people.
Trinidad and Tobago is one of the largest refugee-receiving countries in the Caribbean after Belize and the Dominican Republic.
Nakhid reported that before 2012 they would receive about 20 to 30 people annually from a range of countries but then every year following there have been more and more.
In 2014 they had more than 100.
This more than doubled to 209 the following year, and in 2016 it was 314.
They expect more than 400 asylum seekers and a little over 100 recognised refugees this year. According to the UNHCR Trinidad and Tobago fact sheet, as at August 2016 almost half were from the Syrian Arab Republic followed by Cuba at 36 percent. There were three countries with single digit percentages __ Bangladesh followed by Colombia and Jamaica __ while other countries accounted for 20 percent.
Nakhid explained that in January 2013 there was an easing of restrictions with Cuba and a change of their migration law which resulted in increased freedom of movement.
We began seeing Cubans trickling into the country, Nakhid said In mid-2013 around the time of the Syrian war they noticed an increasing number of Syrians. There were similar trends from Bangladesh, Colombia, Jamaica and now Venezuela. Asked if the increased numbers presented a strain on LWC, Nakhid said they have had to become more resourceful and able to meet the demand. She noted that the UNHCR, which has been working with LWC since 1989, has provided them with funding to supplement their efforts.
She said, however, that the biggest strain revolved around a lack of legislation resulting in the refugees having no workers rights and basically under the table, exploited and underpaid.
She said the group includes children and people with disabilities, and LWC offers assistance with rent, schoolbooks, necessities and the cost of living. She reported that refugees can be found working across industries including restaurants, food service, construction, domestic work, landscaping and industries where you do not need English language skills.
She said there are professionals as well with a wide range of skills but they often have to work in jobs below their skill sets.
We have nurses who are not in the profession, attorneys who cannot practice. It is frustrating for them, Nakhid said.
In response to the growing number of asylum-seekers, the Government adopted a Refugee Policy in June 2014 and UNHCR established an office in January 2016.
UNHCR focuses on activities related to refugee status determination, capacity-building and advocacy, and their protection complements activities in the areas of education, health, shelter, food security and durable solutions.
According to the UNHCR fact sheet, while the Refugee Policy adopted in 2014 envisions Government providing recognised refugees with a permit of stay, work authorisation and access to public assistance, there are currently no avenues for refugees to legally integrate in society. In the absence of refugee legislation, UNHCR performs refugee status determination under its mandate; provides ongoing technical support and capacity building to Government; and participates in public awareness events. Due to the lack of legislation that would allow for local integration, UNHCR submitted that the majority of refugees recognised under their mandate for resettlement, and in the first half of 2016, 26 refugees were resettled, the fact sheet reported.
Also at the interview was UNHCR Protection Officer Rubén Barbado who explained that Trinidad and Tobago ratified the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol __ the Foundations of International Refugee Law __ in November 2000 but until now there is no legislation. Nakhid said they have been given provisional approval for work permits for recognised refugees but it still has to go through a final approval stage.
So there have been some advances in terms of work rights, Nakhid said.
And the law that was envisioned is being drafted in a very participatory manner. Were all at the table with the Government as well in terms of drafting the legislation.
We hope to see another draft in a few months. Barbado said that apart from Governments role there is also a part for the public to play. He explained there is a lack of knowledge about who are refugees and what it means to be a refugee. He stressed that it is a fundamental right of a person who is persecuted to be protected and not sent back to their countries of origin.
He said there are many reasons a person may flee their country including nationality, religion, political opinion, race or membership in a social group, or being in a religious or sexual minority.
Asked about those in Trinidad, he said there is a mix of categories with people coming from 19 countries.
Nakhid said some countries actively resettle refugees including the US, though under the new Donald Trump administration they are seeking to reduce the numbers. She added, though, that this country does not do that and there is no legislation regarding someone seeking asylum.
It has to have an actual programme, she stressed. Otherwise you will see people in very vulnerable situations. Barbado pointed out that locally the numbers have been increasing and Government has found a need to respond. They need to address it and get ready before the situation deteriorates, he said.
He said Government, in accordance with the Refugee Policy, established a refugee unit and staff have been selected and are being trained. He added they have been collaborating with the National Security Ministry and the Immigration Division, and that it was important to have a government for dialogue and to make progress.
Trinidad and Tobago is taking a position and has to be commended for it, he said.
Nakhid said one of the principles when dealing with refugees and asylum seekers is non-penalisation for people entering the country illegally. She added that this is often a sticking point and there continues to be the detention of asylum seekers and deprivation of their liberty.
Barbado said with a fair process, refugees and asylum seekers would usually commit to the regulations. He said, however, if there is no asylum procedure then people will seek a back-door route to stay in the country. So it is important to have legislation to govern all of this, Barbado said.
Asked about the request by the Muslims of Trinidad and Tobago for Government to take in 1,000 Syrian refugees, Barbado responded that it was not only about bringing in people from outside but there are already a number of people here.
There are people already in need here. Before going to that stage we need to address the needs here, Barbado responded.
He said there was no particular time-frame by which people would be resettled.
He pointed out there are issues of capacity at LWC and UNHCR and that can be challenging.
He added that both organisations are working to speed up their capacity.
The refugees arrive mostly by flights but also by boat through irregular means. If they leave their country they may have no passport and have to pay smugglers.
Refugees, once they have left their country, (can be) exploited, raped, forced to do horrible things, relatives killed, threatened, lives turned upside down. It is not always easy to take the decision to leave your country, he added.
He pointed to the situation in Syria, Yemen, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. He said at times there is a country with a stable government but citizens are persecuted by the systems and even by their own relatives.
Barbado added that there were not only sad stories but stories of resilience.
This happened to me (the refugee) but I am still alive. And I am here, he said.
Nakhid said locally refugees have access to basic services including healthcare but they have delays in getting their children into schools and a large number remain out of the system.
She added that even with the Childrens Act there are administrative hurdles to registering their children, which is a concern.
She said they have to be registered with immigration, put under supervision, turn in their passport, are walking around without ID, cannot open a bank account or receive money from abroad.
Barbado stressed that the global refugee situation is the worst since World War II with more than 60 million people forcibly displaced. He reported that in the Caribbean from mid-2015 to 2016 the number has increased by 257 percent.
Its a huge increase. He pointed out that Syria was a country with a history of receiving refugees and now they have people seeking asylum. These people are persons. They have parents, children, siblings.
Their own lives.
Humanity should help human beings. He said from a national security perspective it is of interest to the Government to comply with international obligations and identify people who need to be protected.
At this moment history will judge us, what we do. We want to be proud of what we have been doing. Nakhid said that at the end of the day it is the moral imperative.
Any one of us could become a refugee any day.