The Trinidad and Tobago government Wednesday criticised the international community, most notably the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) regarding the controversy that has erupted after 16 Venezuelan nationals, including children, deported last weekend, returned to the island late Tuesday.
In a strongly-worded statement, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley said his administration was not surprised at the unfolding situation given that the OAS “under its misguided (Secretary-General) President (Luis) Almagro has been almost singlehandedly responsible for triggering and fuelling the current Venezuelan situation”.
He said that these public officials have virtually declared war on Trinidad and Tobago for having the “temerity to have not joined Elliot Abrams and President (Donald) Trump in forcing violent regime change in Venezuela.
“Trinidad and Tobago is currently under the latest assault, using nameless, faceless people armed with innocent children, to try and force us to accept their understanding of “refugee status and international treaty” where a little island nation of 1.3 million people must be expected to maintain open borders to a next-door neighbour of 34 million people even during a pandemic,” Rowley said, insisting “this is a matter, not for the OAS, but for the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Currently we have closed our borders even to our own citizens in this pandemic and would resist all efforts by others who are hell-bent on forcing open our borders through illegal immigration,” Rowley said.
On Tuesday, several Venezuelans, including 16 children, who were “deported” from the island on Sunday, returned to Trinidad and Tobago, even as National Security Minister Stuart Young urged citizens not to become “emotional” about the entire situation.
The Venezuelans, wet and shivering and awaiting law enforcement officials, told reporters soon after they landed at a beach in Erin in south Trinidad, that even though they had left this country in two boats, they decided to turn back toward Trinidad after one of the boats had developed trouble. The youngest child in the group is reported to be four months old.
On Monday, a High Court judge conceded that she has no jurisdiction to order the return of the Venezuelans after they were deported on Sunday.
Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams said it was “a bit concerning” and “disturbing” that the court’s order to have the Venezuelans appear in the court on Monday was made at midday on Sunday and even though the Chief Immigration Officer was served about an hour later, yet it was difficult to get information on whereabouts of the children.
“I just can’t understand how agents of the State cannot account in answer to a court order. The police don’t know who they handed them over to; they say the immigration division. The immigration division says, ‘No, not us.’ It was like crazy,” she said, eventually ruling that despite the circumstances of the migrants’ detention, it appeared they were no longer in Trinidad and Tobago’s jurisdiction and that she no longer had jurisdiction.
National Security Minister, Stuart Young, told a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, prior to the return of the Venezuelans “I understand the emotion and how people try to manipulate the situation.
But he insisted “it is not up to anyone to change the law to suit their feelings.
“This government has always approached non-national migration with a balance that includes the humanitarian aspect. The government can’t be accused of treating migration issues without a humanitarian pillar,” he added.
Venezuela’s Opposition leader, Juan Guadio, in a tweet, condemned the move, calling it “cruel”.
“The cruel treatment to which they subject Venezuelans who have been forced to migrate as a result of the dictatorship is painful and inhuman. Parliament will initiate an investigation and the world is watching the events in Trinidad and Tobago,” he added.
The UNHCR said that more than 50 children who braved crossing the Columbus Channel from Venezuela to be reunited with their families already in Trinidad and Tobago have been turned away by Trinidad and Tobago law enforcement authorities.
The Newsday newspaper reported Tuesday that the UNCHR had indicated that it had been aware of at least 39 children who had been returned since the beginning of the year.
“Trinidad and Tobago has regularly returned the Venezuelans it considers arriving irregularly in the country,” the UNHCR said, expressing concern that the children would now face heightened risks including the risk of being trafficked, exposure to COVID-19 and other unsafe situations, given the circumstances in Venezuela.
But in the statement on Wednesday, Prime Minister Rowley said that “under the rubric of “humanitarian” this interpretation, if accepted, will effectively prise open our borders to every economic migrant, gun runner, drug dealer, human trafficker and South American gang leader/members. All they will be required to do is make the 7-mile boat trip and claim to be “refugees”.
“We staunchly support the work of the United Nations but this threat and the persistent disregard for the outstanding humanitarian efforts extended by the people of Trinidad and Tobago, do not conform with the spirit and purpose of the UNHCR.
“It is our little island nation which facilitated the registration of 16,000 Venezuelan migrants and even as we ourselves are struggling to cope with our own difficulties we have afforded them comfort, aid and opportunity,” Rowley said, adding “if after all that, our nation’s image is to be tarnished through the facilitation of illegal penetration of our borders then certainly, that will be the unkindest cut of all.
“I call on all the people of Trinidad and Tobago to continue to be the humane and caring people that we have demonstrated that we are, as we do not demonize our migrant neighbours but we all continue to be protected by the laws of Trinidad and Tobago,” he added.