Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, who is head of the National Security Council (NSC), has committed to bringing back over 100 T&T nationals, including women and children currently held at detention camps and jails in Syria and Iraq.
However, while there are technical issues that need to be sorted out and determinations on how costly the exercise will be, officials yesterday said, “The Government is committed to repatriating our citizens, but we have all agreed it is a matter that is of a highly technical nature.”
Confirming this following a two-hour meeting with PM Rowley and the National Security Council at White Hall, Port-of-Spain, yesterday, former House Speaker Nizam Mohammed explained, “It involves international relations, it involves other countries. We’ve got to collaborate and to co-operate and to seek assistance where assistance is required and that kind of thing.”
Also present at the meeting was Attorney General Reginald Armour, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds, Foreign and Caricom Affairs Minister Dr Amery Browne and Energy and Energy Affairs Minister Stuart Young.
Mohammed has been appointed to head a three-man committee to oversee the process alongside the locally based families of the Trini nationals who will go through the process. The other members of the committee are former ambassador Patrick Edwards and local Islamic leader Kwesi Atiba.
Emerging from the meeting around 5 pm, Mohammed described it as “rather comprehensive.”
“A lot of discussions have taken place and we have looked at all the ramifications surrounding the return of our people from Syria,” Mohammed told reporters camped outside.
“It is estimated that you have over 100 of our people out there and each one is going to be a special case. Therefore, you can understand how complicated and tedious, possibly a very tedious exercise.”
He stressed, “It is not a simple matter of just taking our people and bringing them back home. All the circumstances surrounding this situation are such that they have all kinds of international implications and the Government, though it is committed, has to be very thorough in its approach.”
Mohammed said while a specific framework had not been outlined during the meeting, “some more fundamental action is in the making right now.”
Addressing relatives of some of the detainees, who are anxious to have their loved ones return home, Mohammed revealed, “Even before this meeting, we have been meeting with relatives, we have been meeting with religious organisations, the leadership of the Muslim organisations, and we have been telling them that the feedback that we have gotten from Government, and more particularly the Prime Minister, is that the Government is serious about this repatriation issue.”
He reiterated that with so many associated technical issues which are time consuming, they would have to meet with detainees’ relatives to see how much information they can provide to the authorities to see to what extent the process can be expediated.
But he was careful not to ascribe any timelines. He said although there is no plan or scheduled meeting with PM Rowley just yet, yesterday’s meeting had opened communication lines.
“Certain steps are going to be taken, talking with different missions abroad and that kind of thing, and those are the sorts of activities that are going to be taking place before we come up with something substantial,” Mohammed said.
Asked to say if the Nightingale Committee’s mandate had been factored in during yesterday’s discussions, Mohammed said while he believed it was still in existence, they did not discuss the work of the Nightingale Committee and where they are at the moment.
“We were mainly concerned with reporting what we have done so far, and how we can build on what we have already established, and that is, you know, the linkages that we have established between the family members and the leaders of the communities.”
In August 2018, then Minister of National Security Stuart Young constituted a multi-disciplinary and multi-agency to deal with possible repatriation and reintegration of T&T citizens being held in refugee and detention camps in Syria and Iraq.
This team was dubbed the Nightingale Team, which includes members of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU); Terrorist Interdiction Unit; Financial Investigation Branch; Child Protection Unit; Anti-Terrorism Desk; Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs (AGLA); Children’s Authority; Counter Trafficking Unit (CTU); Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) Compliance Unit; and the Intelligence Services.
Retired diplomat Edwards has been named liaison officer of the current team. He is set to meet with at least two ministers as he deals with some of the international issues.
Mohammed, along with Atiba, are to meet with relatives as early as possible to give them a briefing on what had taken place and where the Government will be heading from here on.
Asked how much this repatriation exercise will cost taxpayers, Mohammed said it was still too early to answer that.
“We have not yet arrived at that, but I know one thing is certain and that is, it is going to be very costly. But we have not yet gotten to that stage.”
It is believed that more than 90 T&T nationals with alleged ISIS links, including 56 children and 12 women, are being held at the Roj and Al-Hol Detention Camps in north-east Syria.