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Dean of the Law Faculty at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine.

RADHICA DE SILVA

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Protecting migrants is not only the responsibility of the State but the private sector and other groups, says Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies, Professor Rose Marie Belle Antoine.

Speaking at a virtual workshop titled “Protection of Refugees and Migrants in T&T; Exploring legal frameworks, human rights and justice” yesterday, Antoine said there continues to be an erosion of basic rights among the migrant community.

With no proper legal framework to protect them, she said many people, including women and children, are continuing to suffer.

“We need a clear understanding of what is happening and we must find concrete ways to address it in terms of solutions and ways we can make a difference,” Antoine said.

“This is not the responsibility of the State alone. The private sector should get involved because Venezuelan migrants are playing a role in our society as workers, they are in hospitals, supermarkets and many other places.”

She added, “We have a poor and inadequate legal framework which makes the role of NGOs more important. For children and women, I am particularly worried.

“UWI is looking at ways to help the children of Venezuelan migrants. There are health issues and that is why we felt it important to have the Family Planning Association here to provide sexual health services.”

In light of the recent brutal attacks against Venezuelan women, Antoine said, “It is important for NGOs to be involved in this issue because of diminishing empathy for Venezuelans. Living Waters has a long role. You have done a lot over the years but more has to be done. What NGOs are dealing with in a direct way are issues of human rights, the right for all human beings to have economic, social and cultural rights.”

Meanwhile, Rochelle Nakhid, coordinator of the Ministry for Migrants and Refugees of the Living Water Community, agreed that legal frameworks and minimum standard guidelines could go a long way in helping the migrant population.

“It’s a great responsibility we have. The threats that they face are severe. Venezuelans need international protection,” Nakhid said.

“There is a lack of food, medical care, insecurity and violence, access to essential social services and loss of income. The fear of being targeted politically and threats from armed groups.”

She also said human trafficking through coercion, threat of force, abduction, violence, deception and fraud to facilitate commercial gains, prostitution or removal of human organs was also of concern.

Living Water legal officer Ganesh Rampersad reiterated that there was no legislation for refugees.

“However, there is a draft in the Office of the Attorney General but refugees have no right to work or school, no access to all public health care with the exception of emergency care,” Rampersad said.

He noted that migrants in T&T come from Venezuela, Cuba, Nigeria, Jamaica, China, Bangladesh, Dominican Republic, Syria, Colombia and Pakistan.

As part of the domestic legal frame, Rampersad said the Equal Opportunity Act, Sexual Offences Act, Domestic Violence Act, the Constitution, Immigration Act, Trafficking in Persons Act and a national policy to address refugee and asylum matters in T&T existed, but this was not enough.

“It seeks to give primary access to health care to non-nationals. There is a lot more work to do when it comes to immigration laws,” he said.

Rampersad lamented that undocumented migrants and refugees were being treated in the same manner in T&T.

“Under the Immigration Act, they are charged for illegal entry. Magistrates give harsh and inconsistent sentences. We had a person being sentenced to three years, another to five years. They face fines of $10,000 or $20,000 and people can’t pay. Access to bail is a concern and then they are placed in prison. They serve out their time. Neighbours are calling the police for them and they are being arrested,” he added.