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Calls for Closure of Controversial Detention Centre in Trinidad and Tobago 

Chaguaramas Heliport Detention Centre (Source, Google Streetview)
Chaguaramas Heliport Detention Centre (Source, Google Streetview)

After a Trinidad and Tobago court recognised “shocking and appalling” treatment of a Venezuelan child at the Chaguaramas Heliport detention facility, some are calling for the controversial facility to be closed. Previously, detainees have protested the conditions they were forced to endure at the facility, and human rights activists in the country have argued that migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights are systematically violated there.

“Horrors” at the Chaguaramas Heliport 

On 22 March, a court in Trinidad and Tobago ordered the state to pay a Venezuelan boy and his mother USD 2.4 million in damages for its “shocking and appalling conduct” in detaining the child at the Chaguaramas Heliport detention facility. The child and his mother were arrested and detained in November 2020–initially on the grounds of Covid-19 quarantine–and remained detained for 456 days

In its judgement of the case, the court described the “horrors” that the child endured, including insufficient food and water causing him to regularly fall ill, overcrowding, and detention alongside unrelated adults who committed various sexual offences against him. The judge noted that “the claimant’s life was put at risk on a daily basis” and that the state had “intentionally and deliberately” chosen to ignore recommendations to improve conditions for children in the centre, the effect of which was to “cause the most suffering and harm on the claimant as he was a migrant child.” 

Previously, detainees have held hunger strikes and protests challenging the poor conditions in the facility–including in October 2023, when some 90 Venezuelans protested their detention in the centre, challenging the fact that they had not been given information about why they were being detained and demanding that they were either released or deported.

In the wake of the recent court’s ruling, the child’s mother has called for the detention facility to be permanently closed. As her lawyer stated: “The evidence that came out of this case made it clear that this place was unfit to detain people, let alone children.” 

However, she is not the first to demand the closure of the centre. The facility, which was opened in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, was originally intended to operate for the duration of the pandemic. However, even after the WHO formally declared the pandemic over in May 2023, migrants and asylum seekers have continued to be confined there. In July 2023, a High Court judge ruled that it was illegal to continue detaining non-nationals in the facility as quarantine rules were no longer in place. 

Immigration Detention in Trinidad and Tobago 

Immigration detention concerns in Trinidad and Tobago are longstanding. Non-nationals face automatic and indefinite detention in both the Chaguaramas Heliport and the Aripo Detention Centre, as well as at police stations and prisons–something that the UN Human Rights Committee noted with concern following its review of the country’s fifth periodic report in 2023. Detainees are often unable to challenge their detention or deportation, have limited ability to receive visitors, are regularly denied access to interpreters, and are held in conditions that threaten their health and wellbeing. 

Although the country is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it has not been integrated into domestic legislation. Critically, in early July 2023 the Trinidad and Tobago High Court ruled that the 1951 Refugee Convention does not apply to the country. This means that all non-citizens can be deported, even if they have registered with UNHCR. Responding to the court ruling at the time, UN experts including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances urged the country to incorporate the Refugee Convention into domestic law. They said: “Removing protection measures from potentially thousands of migrants is not the solution and puts refugees and asylum seekers at greater risk of abuse, exploitation, torture, enforced disappearance, trafficking and other forms of ill treatment.”

Americas Arbitrary detention children Conditions in Detention Refugees and Asylum Seekers Trinidad and Tobago Venezuelan Refugee Crisis