Justice Carol Gobin –
MORE than two dozen Venezuelan migrants who entered Trinidad and Tobago illegally and were arrested in July 2020 will receive a total of $2.4 million in compensation for their illegal detention at two police stations in the southwestern police district.
Last week’s order by Justice Carol Gobin could be the first award to illegal migrants locally. The judge’s order came after the State conceded in its legal challenge and judgment was entered against the Attorney General. Before that took place, the group was released , on August 17, 2020, and put on supervision orders by the immigration division.
Gobin was tasked to assess compensation for three cases and the parties agreed that the awards made on those will be adopted in the remaining cases.
The cases before Gobin were selected because they involved an adult male, an adult female and a child as a cross-section of the larger group.
In total, at least 16 minors would benefit from Gobin’s assessment and receive $1,760,000 in damages while at least 13 adults would receive $650,000.
In her ruling, Gobin advocated the need for clarity in the enforcement of immigration laws to assist police and immigration officers.
“As these cases show, if the point of their crackdowns, raids and immigration interventions was to deter illegal migrants, and to enforce the law, then the lack of follow-through by the minister after their efforts might well be undermining their efforts.”
She said although the group’s detention was “inevitable,” since they entered TT illegally, there was an inordinate and lamentable delay of 14 days in the police co-ordinating with immigration authorities, who also experienced interference in their operations because of covid19.
She did not award them “substantial damages” for the “loss of something which, as migrants who are here illegally, could not enjoy,” but awarded them “nominal and vindicatory damages” for the “inhumane and degrading conditions” under which they were detained.
“For the children, it was simply cruel.”
The men were detained at the Siparia police station in dark, hot cells and the women and children stayed in corridors at the Fyzabad station without privacy and with no provisions for their hygiene.
According to the evidence, the group were arrested at Red Brick Trace, Oropouche, in the early hours of July 26, 2020. They were released on July 31, 2020, after they were interviewed by immigration officials.
In her ruling, Gobin acknowledged that immigration policy was a matter for the government.
However, she said, “These cases show that clarity in the policy in relation to economic migrants is necessary.
“More than three years have passed since the claimants were arrested in July 2020. They are still here and remain at large.”
She said immigration officials said they were waiting for the Minister of National Security and the Attorney General to be told what to do with them. She said the supervision orders have been routinely renewed subject to certain conditions, two of which cloud the immigration policy.
“The supervision order imposes no restriction on their continuing to work…Clearly, our immigration authorities contemplate that migrants will work while they are under supervision orders.
“In the light of this all, it is small wonder that persons who are escaping harsh economic conditions to seek a better life continue to take the risk.
“If the policy is to allow migrants to remain here with the state’s permission and with the state’s knowledge that they are providing labour then should there be some minimum regulation which protects against exploitation.”
She added, “But there is a crowning irony.” She said the supervision orders imposed a further condition, that the subject shall not travel outside TT without permission from the chief immigration officer.
“Immigrants may be getting the message that they are not required to leave or that they cannot leave even if they want to without permission.”
Earlier in her ruling, Gobin noted all states possessed the right to regulate the entry of aliens into their territory, subject to treaty obligations
“The assertion of that right and the lawful exercise of it ought not to attract claims of inhumanity or xenophobia but they do, unfortunately, and with increasing frequency in recent times. “
She also said she was sympathetic to the plight of all migrants, noting, “It should be sobering for citizens who complain about where we are as a country, that there are people who are leaving their homes, their lives, their families, culture, their language, to start all over in Trinidad with nothing but a willingness to work.
“But the court has to uphold the law and to assume that it would be enforced by those whose responsibility it is to enforce it.”
Gobin said the decision to enter TT illegally, taken out of desperation, exposed migrants to the risk of arrest.
“The country, like many others, including more developed ones, has been struggling to deal with the influx of immigrants with attendant social and economic problems.
“The burden on resources generally and more directly on our policing and border control has increased immensely.“Indeed, we are now struggling to meet additional demands for detention centres for holding people while their fate is being decided as well as, the cost of repatriating detainees.”
She said over the last decade, the benefits of TT’s proximity to Venezuela have been outweighed by disadvantages which increased TT’s vulnerabilities to transnational crime, the pernicious drug and arms trade and human trafficking.
“This is not to suggest that immigrants are undesirables or criminals who are involved in these illegal activities,” she said as she emphasised the need for legislative reform and more effective border control.
Gobin also ordered the State to pay the claimants’ costs, which would amount to just over $360,000, upping the total payout to $2.7 million.
The Venezuelan migrants were represented by attorneys Gerald Ramdeen and Asha Harripaul. Raphael Ajodhia, Sanjiv Sookhoo, Vandana Ramadhar and Fazana Ali represented the State.
In an interview, Ramdeen said the matter has been determined, he still intends to appeal aspects of the ruling “having reard to the importance of the issues involved given the prevalence of these types of claims by migrants and the need for further clarification as it relates to compensation.”