Trinidad and Tobago’s treatment of Venezuelan migrants and refugees and its deportations of Venezuelans, including children and asylum seekers, are not only egregious rights violations but also a sad reminder of its unswerving allegiance to the Nicolás Maduro government. While Trinidad and Tobago, as many other countries worldwide, is struggling to respond to the economic and public health impact of COVID-19, that’s no excuse to justify deportations that violate international law.
About 24,000 Venezuelans have, in recent years, made the 25-mile journey to Trinidad and Tobago, fleeing the economic and political crisis back home, and numbers are expected to increase to 30,000 by the end of 2021. Migrants risk their lives making the boat crossing, undeterred by Trinidad and Tobago’s deportations. On December 6, just days after 160 people were deported on November 28, at least 34 migrants, including several children, drowned when their boat foundered. Trinidad and Tobago deported 66 more people on Dec. 17, including 22 children – one 8 months old. Trinidad and Tobago’s security ministry said on November 28 that deportations are being conducted “in conjunction with Venezuelan authorities.”
Even as Venezuelans flee to their shores, the government of Trinidad and Tobago continues to defer to the very regime whose economic mismanagement and abuses have driven the mass exodus of more than 5.5 million people. Trinidad and Tobago regularly supports Maduro at the Organization of American States (OAS). On December 18, Prime Minister Keith Rowley said he would not vote on any OAS resolution until a representative of the Maduro government replaced the representative of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who currently represents Venezuela, at the table.
Trade agreements between Venezuela and the Caribbean Community bloc, which includes Trinidad and Tobago, have kept commercial and economic links between the two countries relatively strong. Venezuela has for many years offered these countries preferential access to its oil, though shipments have declined in recent years due to falling production and the effects of U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil. Trinidad and Tobago signed agreement with Venezuela in 2013 to jointly develop a natural gas field, but the deal was suspended in 2020, given restrictions derived from US sanctions.
Vulnerable Venezuelans, however, do not appear to benefit from these agreements. If they make it to the Anglophone islands, Venezuelans face not only language barriers but also a heightened risk of sexual and labor exploitation, along with difficulties accessing health care, schooling, and work. Now, some are being detained and deported without due process.
On November 17, for example, police detained 29 Venezuelan citizens, including 16 children, one of them 4 months old, as their boat arrived. Some children were traveling alone, to join families on the island. The coast guard sent them back to Venezuela on November 22 in two small boats. One of the motors malfunctioned, media reported. With the boats tied together, the Venezuelans went missing for several hours before they were found off the coast of Venezuela.
The very next day, after a human rights lawyer filed a habeas corpus request, a judge ruled that the deportations had occurred before legal proceedings were completed, requesting their return to Trinidad and Tobago. That prompted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to order Trinidad and Tobago to not send the kids to Venezuela until officials could analyze the risks to them. Two are seeking protection from domestic abuse, for example, and two suffer acute heart conditions requiring treatment and medication unavailable in Venezuela. The commission noted that the authorities had not given the detainees a hearing before a judge before deporting them, contacted parents or guardians, or allowed the detainees to meet with a lawyer, as Trinidad and Tobago law requires.
Deportations without due process violate international norms, as does returning asylum seekers to a place where they would face a real risk of threats to their lives or other serious harm. In addition, the Committee on the Rights of the Child enjoins countries not to return unaccompanied or separated children to a country where there are “substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk of irreparable harm.”
Children are among those most affected by Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency. More than 14 percent of those under age 5 in certain low-income areas are malnourished, the non-profit Caritas reports. About 3.2 million children in Venezuela and another 4.3 million who have left Venezuela require urgent humanitarian assistance, UNICEF says, and even before the COVID-19 closures, 856,000 had dropped out of Venezuelan schools.
Arbitrary deportations also violate children’s right to family unity. Separating a family may amount to “arbitrary or unlawful interference with family life,” the Committees on the Rights of the Child and on Migrant Workers and Their Families have concluded. Trinidad and Tobago should facilitate the reunification of children with their parents, prioritizing the child’s best interest.
Regardless of Trinidad and Tobago’s economic or diplomatic ties to Venezuela, or the challenges of the pandemic, Venezuelans who arrive on the islands have a right to seek asylum. Children should be allowed to reunite with their families, complying with international human rights standards. Their fate should not depend on the intervention of a judge. High-level authorities, starting with the prime minister, should uphold their rights too.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner is deputy Americas director at Human Rights Watch and Martina Rapido Ragozzino is an Americas research assistant.