PORT OF SPAIN –– As the global refugee crisis continues to worsen, the United Nations has warned that more and more displaced persons are seeking relief in the Caribbean, with T&T recording 400 new applications during the period January to now, which represents a 40 per cent increase from last year.
Set to observe World Refugee Day on June 20, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has started an online petition in a bid to send a message of action, solidarity, and responsibility on behalf of refugees to governments worldwide.
Seeking to make local media practitioners aware of just how dire the situation is, UNHCR protection officer, Ruben Barbado, yesterday urged people to join hands to work to end the refugee crisis and find homes for displaced persons worldwide.
He said citizens could no longer afford to sit back and ignore the plight of other nationalities, as we were all human beings entitled to certain rights and freedoms.
The previous administration adopted an official refugee policy in 2014.
Although it was envisioned through the policy that refugees would be granted permits to stay and work as well as access public assistance, there are no current avenues for refugees to legally integrate into the country.
However, with the new refugee legislation at an advanced drafting stage, it is expected that government will soon participate in the quality assurance initiative project that would result in the progressive transfer of responsibilities from the UNHCR to the State.
Endorsing the call by Barbado, Living Waters Community (LWC) Coordinator Rochelle Nakhid provided some statistics as she spoke during the Refugee Protection Workshop for Media Professionals at Bretton Hall.
T&T was listed as the third most popular country in the region behind Belize and Dominican Republic respectively, where asylum was being sought by refugees from a number of countries including Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, Africa, Asia, Syria, Pakistan and the Middle East.
Estimating that 65.3 million people had been forcibly displaced globally, Nakhid said the Caribbean was not isolated from the refugee crisis.
Revealing a 257 per cent increase in the number of asylum-seekers in the Caribbean region between mid-2015 and mid-2016, she said the numbers had continued to increase steadily from 770 refugees in 2014, to 837 in 2015 and 976 by mid-2016.
Referring to the local situation, Nakhid said there were approximately 640 refugees, asylum seekers and other persons of concern in T&T up to April 30, which was a 62 per cent increase in the number of persons who had applied for asylum in 2016 compared to 2015.
While T&T acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol in November 2000, Nakhid and Barbado agreed it was disappointing there was no domestic legislation to address the situation.
Barbado said with the lack of national legislation, the UNHCR was limited in its capacity to perform Refugee Status Determinations (RSD).
While the UNHCR can assist with registering, conducting eligibility interviews, recognition of refugee status, resettlement and increasing public awareness, the LWC’s functions include screening, psychological care, humanitarian assistance, presenting asylum seekers to the Immigration Division and ensuring their registration with the UNHCR.
The Immigration Division is tasked with registering all asylum seekers and refugees, issuing and renewing Orders of Supervision, as well as dealing with migrant matters related to their presence in T&T.
Among the concerns often raised by asylum seekers and refugees in T&T, Nakhid said persons were particularly concerned about detention, being irregular/undocumented, uncertainty over being resettled, lack of ability to work and access education, inability to access proper health care, harassment and discrimination, and lack of procedural clarity.
While education at the primary and secondary levels are free to the public, officials admitted there were barriers for many refugee children such as the ability to speak and understand English as well as the lack of available spaces.
As a result, the UNHCR through the LWC facilitates the enrollment of children of refugee and asylum-seekers in schools, along with access to public health facilities as well as
the services of private doctors who provide a pro-bono facility to these persons.