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Five years ago, two Sri Lankan Tamils, Kasun and his wife Thilini, fled their home country for fear of persecution from the government because of their Tamil ethnicity. During their journey the couple had to split up temporarily, and Thilini, 48, ended up in France, while Kasun, 50, landed in Trinidad. They are yet to be reunited.
Kasun arrived in April 2008, and was charged with possession of a false passport and illegal entry into T&T. He is still here, released on bail after serving 18 months in prison. He cannot work, and he cannot leave the country.
Meanwhile, Thilini successfully filed for refugee status in France and is now a legal resident there.
Their stories are different, possibly and partially owing to the fact that T&T has no legislation or national policy on how to treat with asylum-seekers who enter the country, looking to gain refugee status.
The most recent statistics provided by the Ministry of National Security show that over the past decade there have been 300 asylum-seekers coming to T&T, comprising people from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
At present there are 20 recognised refugees and about 37 asylum-seekers in the country, according to International Affairs Unit director at the Ministry of National Security Antoinette Lucas-Andrews.
She said the government understood its responsibility to protect asylum-seekers years ago, because in November 1979 Cabinet recognised the need to treat with the issue of granting refugee status on political or economic grounds, and T&T officially became a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention in November 2000.
Under the convention member-states have certain obligations to refugees including employment, education, identification documents, safe shelter, freedom of movement, an opportunity to become a naturalised citizen and non-refoulement (cannot be sent back to home country).
“Today however, there is no national mechanism for evaluating an asylum application. None in T&T.
“The reality is that the Immigration Act does not provide for recognition of refugee status.”
She said it therefore also required “review and revision.”
“Perhaps even a massive overhaul. Perhaps even a repeal and a replacement with a more robust, more modern piece of legislation,” she said, speaking at a function in December marking Human Rights Day.
Currently, it is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which reviews and processes asylum applications for T&T. These applications go through the Living Water Community, as there is no legislative provision allows the government to review the cases itself or adequately fulfil its obligations, even though the country is a member-state of the convention.
Because Living Water trained with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the 1980s, its relationship with UNHCR grew organically when T&T became a member-state of the refugee convention.
The UNHCR carries out its Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedure to decide whether the asylum-seeker is fit to be awarded refugee status or not.
UNHCR would then inform the government, again through Living Water, whether this person is recognised as a refugee on the basis of his claims.
The Immigration Division then issues an Order of Supervision for the asylum seeker via the Community, whereby that person is released into its care.
“In instances where the claim is approved, and the person is determined to be a refugee, he or she is often resettled in a third state,” Lucas-Andrews explained.
Kasun was granted refugee status since 2010 by UNHCR, but cannot resettle in another country because of his impending court matter here.
(He was arrested for having fraudulent documents, which is against the 1951 Refugee Convention.) It’s been about four years, and his case still has not been called.
At present, the ministry is considering the provision of minister’s permits to those granted refugee status, which would allow them to stay for a fixed period, as well as work legally.
Like Kasun, millions of people flee their home country for similar reasons.
The global number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate was estimated at 11.1 million for mid-2013, with many leaving Colombia, Syria, Congo and Sudan.
Migration is as old as human history. And as reasons for it evolved over time, from job opportunities to improved living conditions to escaping from persecution, so too have policies which seek to regulate and control this global flux.
Kasun is just one in millions, grappling with being stateless, unemployed, and alone.
“I have not seen my wife in over five years,” he said in a video testimonial organised by Living Water. “I would like to join her in Europe where she is now a resident, but I can’t leave.”
Kasun cannot work in T&T, even though refugee status was granted, so he “helps out” Living Water, which in turn helps him with his living expenses.
“I served my sentence but the justice system here has my life in limbo.”
The draft policy
Lucas-Andrews said a national policy for addressing refugee and asylum-seeker matters in T&T was almost ready to be presented to Cabinet by the end of this year’s first quarter.
Speaking at the function organised by Living Water and held at the Central Bank Auditorium, Lucas-Andrews shared details of the intended bill, highlighting how the government would deal with refugees and asylum-seekers who entered the country.
The draft policy, which includes three phases, was drawn up as a result of year-long consultations with other stakeholders including the Ministries of Education, Foreign Affairs, the office of the Attorney General and non-governmental agencies.
Phase one involves seeing an expansion of the present procedure, where the Living Water Community and UNHCR take the lead in the RSD process. An “expansion” means more support from the Immigration Division and the National Security Ministry, as well as more training and exposure for immigration officers and law enforcement officials to treat asylum claims.
The next phase, expected to go on for a maximum of 12 months, proposes the government would take over the responsibility for the RSD process, in collaboration with the UNHCR.
“During this phase, focus will be placed on establishing the national legislative framework and building the capability in our immigration division to do refugee status determination,” she said.
Additionally, an eligibility committee would be established, comprising governmental and non-governmental agencies, responsible for processing asylum applications and liaising with the UNHCR.
The new committee will operate under the responsibility of the Immigration Division, and communicate its recommendations to the Minister of National Security.
“It is envisioned, that by the end of phase two, the government of T&T would be actively and intrinsically involved in the RSD process.”
By phase three, Lucas-Andrews said the procedure for processing applications would be fully implemented, comprising identification, registration, and screening.
“During phase three, we also envision the establishment of a refugee unit, or a refugee department, or a refugee section...within the Immigration Division to handle refugee and asylum matters.”
The 1951 Refugee Convention, relating to the status of refugees, is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of nations which receive them, according to UNHCR.
It is important to note the terms asylum-seeker and refugee cannot be used interchangeably.
An asylum-seeker is someone who is seeking international protection—but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined.
The convention defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”