Syrian detainee: Does Trinidad and Tobago Government hate us?

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Raheema Khan, second from left, and other relatives of refugees in Northern Syria during the Human Rights group press conference on TT nationals living in refugee camps at the Kapok Hotel, St Clair, on Tuesday. – AYANNA KINSALE

“Does our government hate us? Why are they not doing anything?”

Raheema Khan, the sister of a woman being detained in a Syrian camp, said her sister sent her this heartbreaking message recently.

Khan was speaking to the media following the launch of the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) report Trinidad and Tobago: Bring Home Nationals From Northeast Syria at the Kapok Hotel, Port of Spain, on Tuesday.

She knocked the Government for the snail’s pace at which it was moving to repatriate TT nationals from camps in Syria where 21 women, 56 children, and 13 men and boys are being held in dire conditions. She said she was happy the international organisation was putting pressure on the Government to move quickly.

“The government has been telling the media and us that they need to verify that these are our citizens and they are working on legislation. In four years: haven’t you verified, haven’t you done anything? If I as a family member can contact the International Red Cross and I got a letter stating that my sister is well and in the camps in Syria, and I gave that to you – the Government – why can’t you talk to all these other international organisations to verify our citizens there?

“The US is willing to assist the TT government in any way to verify the citizens there and even bring them home. Our government has been refusing, as far as I’m concerned, all assistance. The UN wrote the government a letter telling them they have citizens in these camps and children suffering in inhumane conditions, and the government ignored them. The officials running the camps have contacted the government, and they never got a response.”

Khan said she had six nieces and nephews in the camps, and they were depressed and sick.

She said her sister sent a message, “Why isn’t our government doing anything? Our government just hates us. Because if the Barbadian government can bring the Bajan woman home, does that mean the TT government hates us? They don’t want us back?”

She said the families of the refugees were scared that the older boys would be taken from their mothers and sent to detention centres.

“The guards have told the Trinidadian mothers, we are coming for your sons and they are carrying them to prison, at 12 years old. So these mothers are scared, they are trying to hide their sons so the guards don’t grab them. Because once these boys leave, the mothers have no contact with them anymore. So we’re running out of time.”

Khan said the families were willing to send a team to assist with verification and said government had ignored verification documents provided.

“We provided them, my sister took out pictures of her and her kids, in the camp since 2019, you could see the tent and the UNHCR stamp on the tent. We provided pictures of all these women and children, birth certificates, ID cards, passports, marriage certificates, everything. We have a whole verification folder, we gave that to the Government – the National Security Ministry, Ministry of Foreign Affairs – we gave all of them. And we even gave them responses that families got from International Red Cross (IRC).

“If the IRC is telling you this person is in the camp, we’ve shown you pictures of them, all these things. We have voice notes, they send us messages every week, we have voices, we know who we’re talking to. How can you tell us you’re still trying to verify that these are citizens and you’re not making an effort to do anything?”

Tajmeed Ali said he had faced a similar runaround from Government, having provided documentation in 2019. He said he was told by the National Security Ministry that the Nightingale committee, a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team established in 2018, was dealing with the matter.

“I have six grandchildren there, between five and 14 years old. This experience is traumatic. This grandson of mine, who is almost 14, they have been trying to take him. Up to two weeks ago, I sent a statement to the United Nations asking for them to not take him to the detention centre. They have not taken him, they’ve taken people around him. It’s not a rehabilitation centre, it’s just punishment.”

HRW counter-terrorism associate director Letta Tayler said the UN had written to TT in January 2022, telling the government that there were nationals there, and asking the government to repatriate them, but a response had never been received.