Trinidad: Millions For Migrants

(TRINIDAD EXPRESS) – The arrest of 21 Venezuelan men, women and children during the Covid-19 pandemic, and their imprisonment in atrocious conditions at two police stations for three weeks, have led to the State having to fork out millions in compensation to the migrants.

The order was made in a judgment delivered last week by Justice Carol Gobin, who also questioned the immigration policy of the Government, given that three years after the arrests the migrants were still in Trinidad and Tobago.

The judge assessed that each of the adult migrant be compensated $25,000 with $25,000 in vindicatory damages. For a minor child, there was a order of $25,000 with vindicatory damages of $85,000. In total, it amounted to $2,808,750.

The case against the State was brought by six of the migrants through attorneys Gerald Ramdeen and Asha Harripaul.

According to the evidence, in the early hours of July 26, 2020, police officers raided a location at Red Brick Trace, Oropouche.

Twenty-one Venezuelan nationals including the six claimants, were arrested. The adult female and the children were taken to the Fyzabad Police Station, the adult males, to the Siparia Police Station. They were all subsequently escorted to the Siparia Health facility for mandatory Covid-19 testing and then returned to their respective stations.

The migrants said no one gave a reason for their arrest but given that even with the language barrier, some of them were scrambling to produce documents at the scene, but Justice Gobin said she was satisfied there was sufficient communication to inform and the claimants must have been aware that this was about their immigration status.

On July 31, 2020 the detainees were interviewed by immigration officers wearing hazmat suits in the presence of interpreters. Interview notes were recorded. Following that visit there was no communication from either the police or from any immigration officer for over two weeks as to their status. The claimants claimed that the conditions of their detention were inhumane.

On August 14, the claimants’ attorneys filed applications for writs of habeas corpus, but the claimants were released by the immigration authorities and placed on orders of supervision. In those circumstances the judge was not called upon to consider whether the detention was justified.

A year later, the migrants filed an action against the state claiming damages for false imprisonment, aggravated and exemplary damages and costs.

And on June 9, 2022, judgment was entered against the Attorney General by consent in all 21 matters.

Contacted for comment yesterday, attorney Ramdeen said while he was pleased with the outcome of the case, he was disappointed in the amounts award to the claimants, given the conditions under which they were held.

He said that having regard to the issues raised for the first time in the legal action, and the assessment made by the judge, he would be taking the matter to the Court of Appeal.

Deplorable conditions

Last Week, Justice Gobin heard the matter of the assessment for damages which the parties agreed would be adopted in all 21 cases.

The evidence presented on behalf of the migrants detailed the situation in Venezuela, that of widespread suffering and economic hardship and their deliberate and considered decision to flee their homeland to seek refuge elsewhere; that they had no choice; that they selected Trinidad because it is the closest and they could afford to get here. In interviews with immigration officers in answer to a specific question, they said that they were not fleeing political persecution and this is significant, Justice Gobin stated.

The migrant described the moment of the arrest, saying they were awakened from their sleep by very aggressive armed officers. They said they were frightened and embarrassed and no officer spoke English. Among the things that increased their fear following their arrest was the possibility of being returned home and the consequences of such and they feared that they would be arrested and kept for months in custody before being sent back.

At the police station they claimed that no-one spoke to them and they were treated like criminals without being charged or convicted of any wrongdoing. They were taken to hospital and tested for Covid-19 and they thought they would be released after they tested negative but were then taken back to the police station, they claimed.

The evidence of an immigration officer is that because the entire South office of the Immigration Division was in Covid-19 quarantine at that time, he could take no further action for two weeks regarding the migrants.

Justice Gobin found that the arrest and detention of the 21 migrants was inevitable, and while they were entitled to nominal damages, the unacceptable conditions of their detention raised the issue of vindicatory damages, which is awarded when there is a violation of the individual’s human rights.

The evidence of migrant Javier Velasquez is that he was placed in a cell with ten other persons. He did not think he had committed any offence and he believed the only reason they were all being targeted was because they were illegal immigrants. When the men in the cell could manage to, they were forced to sleep in cramped conditions on the ground which was filthy, and cold at night. They had to call out to the officer when they needed to use the toilet. They had to relieve themselves in the full view of everyone else in the cell. The stench from the toilet was unbearable. The officers were the ones to flush it. Sometimes they did not. The stench from the unflushed toilet was unbearable. They were served bread and peanut butter three times per day for 25 days.

Venezuelan mother Aurisbehr Velazquez said she was not allowed to change her night clothes, and felt exposed. The conditions under which she and the children were detained were horrible. The police station had no facilities to meet the needs of small children. She was kept in a corridor outside a cell which housed adult male detainees. A filthy mattress was provided. Other than for the times they were allowed trips to the toilet in the women police officer’s dormitory, they remained in this dark confined space for 22/23 days. A sheet was hung across the corridor to separate her from the male cell entrance but it afforded no privacy even when she was breastfeeding.