There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who, when they arrive on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago, do not have the proper documentation to stay in the country, but for some reason or the other, are determined to stay.
Some may be trying to escape strife and war in their country, some may have been displaced, while others were seeking economic opportunities to improve their way of life. But, when they overstay their welcome, Immigration steps in and most times they are sent to a detention centre, jail, or deported.
They must meet certain requirements to gain refugee status, thus citizenship, in TT.
Living Water Community assist citizens who were seeking asylum because their lives were in danger. To date there has been more than 1,200, with about 100 at present.
“There are many people who come to this country for economic reasons, that does not come under our mandate. When people come to us they are interviewed for us to do a determination to see if their lives are really in danger and need protection,” said assistant community director of Living Water, Rosemary Scott.
She said they did initial interviews, and further interviews were sent up to the Washington office, the head office for the Caribbean region for United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
She said despite the fact that TT had signed the convention to recognise and accept refugees, there was no legislation in place. This meant that refugees seeking asylum had absolutely no rights in this country, she said.
Scott said they liaised with Immigration allowing them to at least have what was called an “order of supervision” which entitled them protection while they were here and their case was being determined.
“Once the case is determined that they are refugees, then by international law they should be protected in this country...again because there is no legislation in place very often we need to find a third country to resettle them,” Scott said.
Scott said refugees were not entitled to work, or have bank accounts, a driver’s licence or any documents.
“If the proper legislation was in place then they would be entitled to all rights as any other citizen of this country,” Scott said.
Living Water has been helping people seeking refugee asylum for over 20 years, and has helped over 1,000.
She said people seeking their assistance were not boat loads of people, but single families.
Scott said ten years ago there was a big resurgence coming out of Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Sengal, Ivory Coast), but now there was a big influx coming from Cuba.
“It’s not coming in the hundreds or thousands, they are coming in a family or two,” she said.
Seeking asylum in TT is not easy.
“We have to do a determination because a lot of them are economic migrants and just looking for a better life, and through the grapevine they think that Trinidad has a lot of jobs, or a lot of money, whether it be true or false, that’s what draws a lot of people here,” she said.
Scott said they assisted those who were seeking asylum and protection for their lives and their families.
“We assist those who are really seeking protection for their lives. You have to sift through those and those need the protection of the government. Cuba has been the most recent, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan..these are all people seeking asylum,” Scott said.
Scott said there was a misconception that people seeking asylum were poor and uneducated, or that they were coming to “take all the jobs from the people of TT”
That is not so,” Scott said.
She said most of the refugees were very qualified in various fields.
“They are very qualified and I think that the misconception and lack of communication that people have, they think that refugees are poor people. They think that he/she is uneducated and coming to take all the jobs from Trinidadians, but that is not so.
“A lot of these people have university degrees, who are engineers, teachers, and doctors...people from different positions...labourers and construction workers, it is across the board. It is all about what is happening in their country,”she said.
Scott said it was not a hand out but people seeking asylum were not just accepted, but had to prove that they were victims of crime and war.
She warned that just because someone’s country was at war that, or because TT had a spiralling murder rate, that people would get asylum. It is not because your country is at war necessarily that you can be granted refugee status, it is what is your connection to that,” she said
Scott said, “It is not because TT has gang warfare I am going to apply for refugee status. Gang warfare has not affected me personally, so that does not give me the right for refugee status. Can I move to a safer part of the country that is not affected, or am I involved in a political party that is involved in this conflict, or do I belong to a social group that is opposing the regime.
“We do not have accommodations so they make connections with networks that already exist and a lot of these people are not necessarily poor. Some of them are able to bring enough money to live on for a couple of months, while some come here with absolutely nothing, without a documents”
Scott said they were in no position to house any families.