The history of the Caribbean is one that has always been rooted in migration. The Amerindians traveled from island to island to support themselves. The Europeans crossed the Atlantic for conquest and colonisation. Slaves and indentured labourers were brought from Africa and India. And in the modern era, there has been movement throughout the islands in the spirit of CARICOM and the CSME.

In recent times, migration patters throughout the world have changed dramatically. The UNHCR is now reporting the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. It has also been reported that nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute across the planet.

Trinidad and Tobago is not immune to this phenomenon, as hundreds of migrants have come to these shores seeking sanctuary from political crises or in search of a better life. It should be noted however that not all of these people fall within the category of ‘refugee‘ as defined by international law.


A refugee is a person who flees his/her country because he/she is being attacked and/or persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. He/she is fearful and no longer can receive protection in his country.

An asylum-seeker, on the other hand, is a person who has fled his/her country to seek protection in another country but has not yet been declared a refugee in the country that he/she has entered. Once an asylum-seeker formally make a claim for asylum, he/she receives official documentation stating that he/she is an asylum-seeker until his/her application for refugee status is determined.

It is important to remember that economic migrants, persons who have left their country voluntarily and do not face a fear of persecution when they return, and persons fleeing natural disasters (unless they also have a fear of persecution) do not fall within the category of ‘refugee’ as defined by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:

A refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reason of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who not having a nationality and being outside of the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

This slide, which was delivered at a presentation co-hosted by UNHCR and the Living Water Community, explains the difference between an asylum-seeker, a refugee and a migrant.


Currently, there is no legislation in Trinidad and Tobago that deals specifically with asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. Accordingly, any issues are dealt with under the Immigration Act Chap. 18:01. The lack of specific legislation on this issue has created difficulties for persons who for whatever reason have landed in Trinidad and Tobago to seek asylum.

The Government of Trinidad and Tobago has developed and formally adopted the policy, entitled A phased approach towards the establishment of a National Policy to address refugee and asylum matters in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.  It is recommended that asylum-seekers and recognized refugees be entitled to the following rights:

  • a permit authorizing their stay in country;
  • work authorization;
  • identity papers;
  • travel document, if he/she does not already have a valid one;
  • public assistance, if he/she is unable to work and is in need of it;
  • medical care as needed;
  • freedom of movement;
  • family reunification;
  • educational opportunities and recreational activities, if as child;
  • counselling for trauma or other psychological issues; and
  • the right not to be expelled from the country (unless the refugee poses a threat to national security or public order)

But to date, these are only recommendations and these rights have not been afforded to all asylum-seekers and refugees.

In reality, such persons cannot legally work, have a bank account, or get a driving li­cence, and there are problems in refugees and asylum-seekers getting health care, affordable shelter, and many basic human rights, including rights of redress if a crime is committed against them.

Currently, the laws of Trinidad and Tobago do not allow asylum-seekers or refugees to be employed.

Regulation 10(1) of the Immigration Regulations which are annexed to the Immigration Act states that no such person “shall engage in any profession, trade or occupation whether for gain or not in Trinidad and Tobago or be employed in Trinidad and Tobago unless there is in force in relation to him a valid work permit … and every person so engaged or so employed shall be employed in accordance with the terms and conditions specified in the permit“.

Similarly, public education is generally not available to asylum-seekers and refugees in Trinidad and Tobago, however, private education institutions may accept pupils in some instances.

The stigma that some refugees and asylum-seekers are responsible for increases in crime, that such persons decease job opportunities for nationals or that they are a ‘burden on the state’ has led to discrimination against and victimisation and persecution of refugees and asylum-seekers.

There are three main solutions advocated by UNHCR with respect to refugees, namely voluntary repatriation, resettlement and national integration.

Voluntary repatriation may be one solution for refugees who have made the brave decision to return home. Together with the country of origin and international community, UNHCR strives to facilitate their choice through ‘go-and-see’ visits, education, legal aid, and family reunification.

For those who cannot return, either because of continued conflict, wars or persecution, resettlement in another country is one alternative. However, of the 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, less than 1% is submitted for resettlement.

Another alternative for those who are unable to return home is integration within the host community. Until national attention is brought to this issue, highlighting the socially and economic benefits of national integration, and until proper legislation is enacted and the national policy enforced, it is up to civil society to advocate on behalf of such persons.

It is critical that grater advocacy is required in this area to bring this human rights issue to the attention and priority of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. For this reason, the Human Rights Law Clinic of the Hugh Wooding Law School chose this issue as its central area of focus for the 2017/2018 academic year.

The Clinic is working with the Living Water Community’s Ministry for Migrants and Refugees to create a cultural orientation curriculum for asylum-seekers, a website to provide critical information about the seeking asylum and to provide a secure space for migrants to obtain accommodation, health and educational opportunities, and a documentary on the difficulties faced accessing schooling for migrant children.



About The Author Jason Nathu

Jason Nathu is an Attorney-at-Law and Tutor attached to the Legal Aid Clinic at the Hugh Wooding Law School.