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KEVON FELMINE

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Although the Government assured citizens that there are sufficient resources to combat illegal immigration and the importation of more COVID-19 cases, the law enforcement agencies task with this duty says they are severely shorthanded.

Police within the South Western Division who battle the illegal smuggling of Venezuelans along the Columbus Channel and Cedros shoreline are not always arresting illegal immigrants. They told Guardian Media that if there are no spaces at the police station to detain immigrants, they have no choice but to let them go. There is a problem concerning detention accommodations for these illegal Venezuelans. Police sources said that approximately two weeks ago, they detained 11 immigrants for illegally entering T&T and put them in quarantine at the Erin Police Station because the relevant authorities had nowhere to house them.

It was only last Friday morning that police from another unit transported them to another facility. With the Immigration Detention Centre frequently packed, the Ministry of National Security converted the Chaguaramas Heliport to a quarantine facility for illegal immigrants.

“They said the heliport has no space, so we in the South Western Division stations have to put our health at risk to house and feed them. The toilets in the station cells are not functioning, so we have to take them out to use our toilets which is a health risk.

“The female detainees are taken by female police officers to shower on mornings and evenings in the female police dormitory. So the police are not detaining them unless absolutely necessary. Every day they come by boatloads along the southwestern peninsula from Morne Diablo in Penal all the way down to Cedros,” the police source said.

While it is Government policy that anyone entering T&T submit to a nasopharyngeal swab for COVID-19 testing at the Caribbean Public Health Agency, health officers only test migrants if they exhibit flu-like symptoms.

“On detention, the police take them to the Siparia District Health Facility, and the doctors would ask them if they are sick. Obviously, they say no, then they are given the 14-day quarantine order. The health personnel give police a medical report signed by the attending doctor stating they have no injuries. The police take the illegal Venezuelans to the station and detain them. While at the station, immigration officers interview the detainees and take their photos. Police also take their photos.”

Deputy Commissioner of Police Jayson Ford said complaints of inadequate facilities and overcrowding of immigrants in the South Western Division did not reach him up to Tuesday.

Ford could not say off-hand whether there was a continuous influx of illegal immigrants coming to T&T.

Erin councillor Arlene Ramdeo said police continue to capture illegal immigrants entering T&T through the Palo Seco/Los Iros shoreline, but there have not been many sightings in Erin.

On September 12, National Security Minister Stuart Young said the Ministry would work with the Venezuelan government to better protect the borders of this country from illegal Venezuelan immigrants. Young said the government was doing everything in its power to deal with illegal immigration, which many have blamed for the upsurge in Covid-19 cases locally. However, both he and Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said there was no evidence to support the claim that illegal immigrants were responsible for the rapid spread over the past two months.

Guardian Media sent questions to Young about the number of detained immigrants, the repatriation back to their home country and the state of T&T’s border Security on Tuesday afternoon. Up to yesterday afternoon, he did not reply.

At yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing, Young said the Government is securing the borders to the best of its ability using a multi-agency approach. He said that in recent times, the State began repatriating illegal immigrants following local laws. He said that because of the pandemic, some immigrants might have COVID-19. The Ministry of Health tests some of them at the heliport for COVID-19.

Cedros councillor Shankar Teelucksingh said that the illegal entry of Venezuelans fleeing their countries socio-economic and political issues remains “a normal thing”.

“I just stopped highlighting it because it seems to be a normal thing,” Teelucksingh said.

Based on eyewitness accounts in his electoral district, he said that between last Tuesday and Wednesday, approximately 25 immigrants entered Trinidad via the Chatham South Beach. Several immigrants were also on the beach waiting to return home.

“When they tell us about border security, if you talk to the coast guard, you will learn that some of the vessels are not seaworthy, there is an issue with fuel and personnel. They can only monitor situations via radar, and even if they see things, they cannot intercept because the vessels are in Chaguaramas. You are not even seeing the presence of the coast guard at sea because there is no dedicated vessel stationed at Cedros.”

Just Sunday, police responded to a report of illegal Venezuelan immigrants at Erin Beach. When officers arrived, some returned to a pirogue that sped towards the Serpent’s Mouth, while others ran into the bushes. Despite the search by the South Western Division Task Force, Criminal Investigations Department, Emergency Response Patrol and Erin police, the illegal immigrants remained at large up to yesterday.

Teelucksingh said there was also someone making fake registration cards that the government introduced following its amnesty to immigrants last year.

“They can get an amnesty card at certain prices, so even if a police or immigration officer stops them, they have a card.”

Defense Force insiders said while the coast guard wants to block all illegal vessels entering, it lacks resources. An insider revealed that within the past week, the Ministry of National Security deported over 80 Venezuelans by taking them to the maritime border aboard a coast guard vessel and handing them over to Venezuela’s Guardia Nacional. Before that, the Ministry repatriated 180 Venezuelans.

“The reason for doing that is because the detention houses cannot take so many people, so they are quarantined and sent back to Venezuela. The coast guard accompanies the immigrants to the border where they meet the Venezuelan authorities who take them back home. When they do this, is because they cannot house so many people at a time and they did not charge them,” an insider said.

While some coast guard vessels are fully functional, only a few have capabilities to use at night. Fuel is also an issue. Defence force personnel said that at any given time, there might be two coast guard vessels keeping watch.

“There are serviceable vessels, but there is an issue with fuel supply. They can only afford to have a certain number of boats out at sea at a time. Manpower-wise, they can only send out a small number of officers at a time. For us to properly secure our borders, we need more deployment stations around the coastline. Even if it is a floating station like a barge in the sea, because to make an interception in San Fernando when you are coming from Chaguaramas, based on sea conditions, weather and functionality of the boat, the chances of losing that target are high.

“If you have stations around Carli Bay, Moruga and Morne Diablo, a boat will not have to leave from Cedros or Galeota. Once we have the assets and funds to maintain the vessels properly, we can do this thing.”