Mateo* has earned refugee status in Trinidad and Tobago, but he still doesn't have the legal right to work. And yet work he does — seven days a week, 12 hours a day at a local supermarket. "Every day is like a game of Russian roulette," the former journalist from Venezuela explained. "The police could arrest me at any time."

So far, after two years of working under the table, he has not been caught. He is one of the lucky ones.

For asylum seekers in the twin-island nation, located just 11 km from the coast of Venezuela, fear of the police and immigration officers is widespread. To date, at least 40,000 Venezuelans have fled here. And since Venezuelans often have expired passports or no documents at all, many cross the country's porous border through unofficial routes, usually on fishing boats.

Without legislation on refugees and asylum claims, the government's Immigration Act determines the fate of asylum seekers — and it treats them no differently from unauthorized immigrants. Consequently, even registering as an asylum seeker with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is insufficient legal protection for displaced Venezuelans on the island.

Detained and deported

In April 2018, Trinidad and Tobago deported 82 Venezuelans — some of whom were registered asylum seekers with UNHCR — in flagrant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory. When deported, Venezuelans return to a country rife with political oppression, an economy in free fall, and severe food and medicine shortages. Needless to say, the situation back home is dire.

In November 2018, I was part of a Refugees International team in Trinidad and Tobago that met with Diego and Antonio, two of the 82 deported Venezuelans. Later they fled back to Trinidad and Tobago and re-registered for asylum.

At least 40,000 Venezuelans have fled here.

When they first arrived on the island in March 2018, Diego had malaria. Luckily, the men quickly found Living Water Community, the primary NGO providing aid for asylum seekers on the island. The organization helped them register for asylum and pay their rent and, ultimately, sent Diego to the hospital to seek treatment.

But one day, when Antonio was visiting Diego, the hospital staff called the immigration authorities. Despite the two men presenting their UNHCR papers, the immigration officials told them the documentation "didn't matter and made no difference." Diego and Antonio were then escorted to the island's immigrant detention center.

Police in Port of Spain, Trinidad — Photo: Jim Wyss/Miami Herald/TNS/ZUMA

In the context of the 3 million Venezuelans who have been displaced by the crisis, a figure of more than 40,000 in Trinidad and Tobago might not sound significant. But the islands have a population of just 1.3 million, so are hosting more Venezuelans per capita than most other countries. Considering the country's close historic ties with Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago has afforded few rights and protections to the displaced. The same goes for other island nations in the Caribbean.

Even with refugee status, Venezuelans are afforded only three rights in Trinidad and Tobago: the right to not be deported, freedom of movement and family reunification. With the UN projecting that the number of Venezuelans in need of protection will grow this year to nearly 3.6 million, the island cannot ignore its responsibility to respond to the crisis on its doorstep.

Dire conditions

On the ground, we heard from many who had been in the detention system that conditions there are grave and that there is overcrowding. Detainees have reported suffering or witnessing beatings at the hands of detention guards. They have limited access to health care. Others reported that they can access natural sunlight for only 15 minutes twice a week.

Currently, there's no oversight or accountability by outside observers, including UNHCR. Some people are kept in detention for months on end, and some are even transferred to the island's maximum-security prison or women's prison. As one asylum seeker told us, "They may call it a detention center, but it's a jail, too."

Ultimately, Diego and Antonio were forced to choose between signing a "voluntary" deportation order, or being "put in prison for a very, very long time," said Diego. They chose deportation. Other former detainees reported receiving similar offers to sign voluntary deportation orders. Those who refused deportation had to pay a security bond of TT$2,100 (about $300) and relinquish their passports. They were also placed under an order of supervision, which requires asylum seekers to report to the authorities once a week or month after release.

Back in Trinidad and Tobago just a month after they were deported, Diego and Antonio now live in a two-bedroom home with 12 other family members and are afraid to go outside.

They may call it a detention center, but it's a jail, too.

"Trinidadian police turned up to the house with guns," they told us the day before we met them. "They asked for our passports. We showed our asylum-seeker cards and asked them to call UNHCR. Thanks to UNHCR, the police did not take us away."

For asylum seekers in Trinidad and Tobago, the status quo is unacceptable. The government must take steps to live up to its commitments under international law and respect the rights and dignity of asylum seekers. They can do so by utilizing alternatives to detention, investing in systematic sensitization on asylum claims for police and immigration officials and improving conditions in and allowing external access to the detention center.

As one Venezuelan woman told me, "We only want a normal life. We want to feel human and be treated with respect." They deserve no less.

*Pseudonyms were used for all Venezuelan asylum seekers.

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