Nafeesa Mohammed

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As more Venezuelans flee their homeland in search of a better life in T&T, immigration attorney Nafeesa Mohammed is calling for a repeal to T&T’s outdated immigration laws.Speaking to Guardian Media on Monday, Mohammed said even though T&T was a signatory to international human rights conventions, some refugees with asylum certificates and identification cards from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are being deported back to their homeland where they could possibly face persecution.

She said while T&T did not have refugee laws, it was still important to take a humanitarian approach in dealing with the hundreds of Venezuelans who were fleeing their homeland because of the socio-economic and political crisis.

“Our immigration act is an archaic piece of legislation. It passed in 1960’s. That law has to be comprehensively revised and if anything repealed and replaced to take into account the modern challenges that we have as it relates to immigrants,” she said.

“In the last couple of years, people have been crossing borders and travelling more frequently. We acceded to these conventions and imposes certain obligations on the country top take certain steps to ensure that some minimum standards are complied with,” she noted.

Mohammed added, “Even though we do not have a refugee law in statute books, we are bound in these international conventions to make sure that we comply with the international best practices that are available internationally.”

She said the challenge T&T faces is that “the immigration act is mainly a law enforcement piece of legislation so there is a need to balance law enforcement with a more humanitarian law-based approach. That is what is lacking.”

Asked whether senior immigration officials were responsible for the deportations, Mohammed said it was the Minister of National Security who has been signing these deportation orders.

“He would get advice from the immigration authority obviously. I have had instances where I had to speak to immigration officers about cases and precedents in the course of law. The State has had to pay damages to persons for the manner in which they have been making decisions. Judgements are there and have set out basic guidelines. By now the immigration officers should be properly trained about these laws,” she added.

She said when the Venezuelan registration period ended in July 2019, more than 17,000 Venezuelans were registered but there were many more who did not get the opportunity.She noted that there has been an ad-hoc procedure which has been accepted as policy when it comes to refugees.

“When seeking asylum you get an asylum certificate and a card from UNHCR. They have an office here and in our country, there has been a close association with UNHCR and Living Waters.”

She said this ad-hoc policy was not supposed to be the final policy but the government was supposed to take a phased approach to develop refugee laws.

“There was a draft refugee bill in the AG’s office. If you want a law to be passed you must have a proper policy document. In keeping model laws available you will have a good law. In the absence of refugee law being enacted in statute books, there is a procedure used over time. There are hundreds of people who have secured asylum here and despite the registration period, many others not able to register,” she explained.

Mohammed said Venezuelans were facing a humanitarian crisis and T&T should put policies in place to manage those who are coming in.

“In terms of the legal system in the absence of dedicated refugee laws, we have rely on this policy framework and hope and pray that the law will come into place,” she added.

She noted that refugees were not criminals but were victims so they should be treated with dignity and respect.

“There are persons who have been asylum seekers against whom the deportation orders have been signed against them with threats to return them to their country. In those circumstances, we need to look at each case on its own merit. There is a need to revisit and try to put systems in place and offer protection and deliver these migrants,” she added.

T&T is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol to respect the rights of asylum seekers, including those Venezuelans already registered under a separate process managed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).