Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews

The Immigration Division has been called upon to provide travel documents for 70 people in Syria’s Al Hol refugee camp to come home or face legal action and being reported to the United Nations.

That’s the ultimatum from attorney Criston Williams acting for the 70.

Williams wrote Chief Immigration officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews on the issue last Monday seeking a response by Monday, latest. Up to Saturday, he had no reply.

The development has arisen while Government’s Team Nightingale continues verifying people said to be T&T nationals who are in Middle East refugee camps–a task that started in 2019 after the Muslims of T&T (MOTT) group wrote the Government seeking help to bring home 68–mainly women and children–from Al Hol. The camp houses surviving relatives of ISIS soldiers and other people. Sunday Guardian broke that story in 2019 following which National Security Minister Stuart Young said the Government had to verify if people were nationals. Since then, Team Nightingale–comprising Immigration, security and other agencies–has been doing that including speaking with T&T-based relatives.

Young said last Friday, “Our security agencies and teams set up to do the necessary work with respect to those persons who may be T&T citizens who went out to war and conflict zones to join ISIS, is ongoing.

“We’ll continue to act responsibly and do the work that is necessary to balance the competing agendas with the priority being to protect the safety and security of T&T.”

The MOTT lobby has segued into the current bid to return the 70 people whom Williams represents. The group comprises 20 women and 57 children. Children range from age one to 17 years. Some returnees are from Rio Claro, Diego Martin, Port-of-Spain, Barataria, Maloney, Kelly Village, Warrenville, Longdenville, Couva, Claxton Bay.

The current effort is the latest chapter in the story of people who left T&T to go to ISIS war zones. Some survived their life there after ISIS was hit by allied forces and crumbled in 2018. In 2017 the Government confirmed 130 people left T&T over 2012/15 to go to conflict zones–fighters and families. Guardian Media subsequently published information from a security report regarding 105 men, women and children who did.

Some listed–among them Shane Crawford–were killed in battle. Crawford, a poster boy for ISIS recruitment, and certain others were subsequently deemed terrorists.

On Fox News in February 2019 correspondent Benjamin Hall spoke to captured ISIS commander Zaid Abdel Hamid whom Hall said was one of many ISIS fighters from T&T. Braced on atrocities ISIS committed, Hamid on camera said he was not apologetic for something he believed in. Hall said Hamid spoke of stonings being permitted, brutal deaths, mutilations. Hall said the look in Hamid’s eyes showed a total lack of remorse.

Threat of court

471854
Attorney Criston Williams

Williams’ letter seeking the travel documents from Immigration comes as the Government considers an amendment to the Anti-Terrorism law which could see people in refugee camps–who went to war zones–being served with Temporary Exclusion orders from T&T and having to seek a permit from the Government to enter, and then conform to certain conditions.

Williams stated that sometime in or around August 2014 to June 2015, the named people in the group of 70 left T&T.

There was no mention of where they went to or what they had been doing since then. But the letter stated the named people entered Al-Hol Refugee Camp in Syria in or around February/March 2019.

His letter stated the camp is unsafe, unhealthy and has hardly any food and water, with flies and toilet facilities which are holes in the ground. He cited illness, little/no medical attention and COVID challenges. He cited violence faced by the women, children being snatched daily and overcrowding in the camp including 10,000 foreigners.

Williams said the necessary step to facilitate repatriation is the need for a valid travel document. But being “detained” at Al Hol they lack the opportunity to apply for this document that acknowledges their nationality.

Williams said his firm was collaborating with international partners to facilitate access to the nationals in Syria to have them repatriated.

He cited an October letter he wrote to the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). The latter’s reply stated “that in the absence of legitimate protection concerns in their countries of origin, the best solution for Trinidadians and all other foreign nationals currently stranded in limbo in Al Hol and other locations in Syria is for their countries of origin to acknowledge their nationality and take concrete steps to ensure their prompt repatriation.”

Williams said Immigration’s refusal to address the request would be challenged on the grounds that the nationals at Al-Hol are entitled to be admitted under the Immigration Act (Section 4):

“Should you not accede to our request, your actions shall be interpreted as an indication that: you don’t wish to ensure T&T’s compliance with International law and adopted a position contrary to T&T’s International Obligations.”

If Immigration fails to reply by Monday’s deadline, legal proceedings would be instituted and “The right is reserved to bring this non-compliance to the attention of the Director, Division of International Protection of the UNHCR,” Williams added.

Gandhi-Andrews did not reply to email from Guardian Media. Nor did Young.

Williams wrote Prime Minister Keith Rowley last Tuesday on the returnees, expressing concerns on proposed Anti-Terrorism amendments. He sought a meeting with Rowley to provide alternative repatriation plans, including “initially” not allowing the return of the men who went to war zones. (See box)

Williams informed Rowley a BBC producer is in T&T liaising with him regarding a podcast, follow up to the “Calypso Caliphate” programme on T&T’s “ISIS fighters.”

Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said the amendments have not been finalised and consultations are being held with Muslims and other groups.

REPATRIATION PLAN

Williams told Guardian Media, “The objective of the judicial review is to ensure the human rights enshrined within T&T’s Constitution isn’t undermined due to overreaching of the Government, to create a security state through wrongful detention of women and children without the process of law.

“All citizens of T&T must be accountable for crimes they commit, but not for perceived crimes they may commit. Equally, we appreciate the security challenges governments (including T&T) face. Where there exists an exposure to risk, this should be done on a case-by -case basis and the Government decides how to mitigate that risk. We cannot establish laws to catch all.

“Our focus is the security of T&T citizens and the human rights of the Trinidadian women and children in those camps. On behalf of the families in the camps, I wrote the Prime Minister detailing strategy that will enable a return with minimal impact to constitutional rights.”

The strategy sets out a plan for group return by consent to subscribing to the Government’s rules through a social contract for them to make the appropriate assessments on a case-by-case basis to determine the genuine risk to life that members of the public are exposed to. The plan involves repatriation, reintegration, resettlement.

It protects against those that have been involved in terrorist activity abroad by not allowing the men to initially return.There is prevention against the mothers that may try to continue the extreme narrative to their children and others through civil remedy and imprisonment and there are precautions against the State overreaching to bring non-constitutional remedy without properly assessing risk/threats. (GA)