U.N. says Trinidad forcibly deported Venezuelan refugees

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (Reuters) - The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Monday criticized what it called the forced deportation of 82 Venezuelan asylum seekers by Trinidad and Tobago that the Caribbean country’s government insisted was voluntary.

The UNHCR said the people had been held in detention in Trinidad and Tobago and that they were deported on Saturday without the agency being given access to them.

“The forced return of this group is of great concern,” Volker Turk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection said in a statement.

“We are in contact with the authorities and are seeking clarification on the legal process which has led to the deportations,” Turk said.

The UNHCR said the group was made up of registered asylum seekers and others who had declared an intention to apply for refugee status, and the government had not granted the agency access to the detainees prior to deportation.

The agency in March reported a 2,000 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum worldwide since 2014, encouraging countries to give them access to refugee measures and warning that it was crucial people were not forcibly deported.

The agency has been working with governments in the Caribbean to help them cope with the influx of refugee.

Venezuela has descended into an economic and social crisis, with millions suffering political insecurity.

Economic collapse has driven an estimated 3 million people from the country.

Trinidad and Tobago denied the deportations were forced and said the Venezuelans had been detained at the immigration detention center (IDC) for various offenses.

“At the airport, each person was asked if they had any fear or objection to returning to their homeland; all stated that they wanted to leave,” the Ministry of National Security said in a statement. “No one was forced or coerced to leave the IDC.”

UNHCR spokesman Chris Boian said established procedures agreed with the government of Trinidad and Tobago had not been followed.

“Registered asylum seekers who decide to return home must first receive counseling from UNHCR and submit a written statement,” that the decision was voluntary, he said.

The ministry said the repatriation of the 53 men and 29 women was a collaborative effort with the Venezuelan embassy, which arranged for the detainees to return to Caracas on a Venezuelan government aircraft.

Reporting by Linda Hutchinson-Jafar; Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Toni Reinhold