At midnight on March 22, 2020, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago closed the national borders to all travellers—including Trinbagonian citizens. It has now officially been six months since the closure and thousands of nationals have endured immeasurable emotional, financial and mental anguish as a result of this policy.
Initially, this policy was put in place to protect the general population within the borders from the spread of COVID-19. Now, six months later, T&T remains shut out from the world with over 2,000 active cases and thousands of nationals trapped outside their home. The arguments for closed borders have disappeared in the face of community testing.
Citizens stranded abroad had to find comfort in each other virtually through WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups. They had to rely on each other for housing, food, and even therapy for declining mental health. Some have gone homeless. Some have lost their wives, parents, children and cannot return home to even take care of their families. Children had to survive on sugar water and the kindness of strangers. Many people have had no income for half a year. Some have lost their jobs and had to find ways to survive in a foreign country with crumbs of assistance.
Yet every day passes without a plan, without news, without communication. People have tried for six months to get an exemption and have heard nothing back. Without an exemption, citizens can’t even attempt to find their way back on their own. Even with an exemption, repatriation flights are like finding a needle in a haystack unless you have the means to pay over $2,000 USD for a seat on a full-charted plane from Barbados.
Citizens stranded abroad are trapped in an unseen, financial and mental purgatory.
The right of return is one of the most basic principles of international law; it is enshrined in the 1948 Geneva Convention. Domestically, Section 4(1) of Trinidad and Tobago’s Immigration Act states: “A citizen of Trinidad and Tobago has the right to be admitted into Trinidad and Tobago.” Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 4 of this Covenant outlines that countries may derogate from obligations in times of public emergency. However, this derogation must not infringe on other obligations the country must follow under international law.
A democratic state cannot lawfully deprive an individual the right of entry into their own country based on public health when there are less draconian alternatives. The current system is unsustainable and cannot continue.
Other countries, especially those with fewer hospitals and resources, have not denied their citizens their international right to enter and have ensured repatriation when necessary. An individual can be screened on entry or take a PCR test 72 hours before flying. Upon arrival, isolation and quarantine for some time are possible.
T&T should eliminate the exemption process. It no longer serves any purpose other than a barrier to citizens trying to get home. By eliminating the exemption process, Caribbean Airlines can host repatriation flights every two-three weeks for nationals with a negative COVID-19 test and proof of citizenship or residency. These flights can operate within the CARICOM travel bubble and those who are outside of this bubble can travel to the designated ports.
These measures are reasonable and proportionate to balance containing the transmission of COVID-19 and protects the rights of nationals under domestic and international law.
It has been six months since people were stranded. It is time to revisit this process and find a way to bring them home