Trinidad and Tobago is failing children locked in Syrian camps

In “Trinidad and Tobago is failing children locked in Syrian camps – it must bring them home,” Kenneth Mohammed (The Guardian) addresses the issue of Trinidadians stranded abroad: “During Covid, the Caribbean republic shut its borders, stranding citizens overseas; now it has left children vulnerable to illness, death and IS recruitment.”

When is it acceptable for a government to lock its citizens out of their country, to leave them stranded overseas, trampling the constitutional and human rights of those who pay their salaries? [. . .] Do politicians own a country and have the right to make these decisions? Or do the people own their citizenship by right of birth, and through hard-earned taxes, pay to have elected politicians represent, govern and manage their country? Which government is so hard-hearted and stiff-necked as to ignore the suffering of an innocent child who faces risk of death?

The government of Trinidad and Tobago is guilty of the above. During the past decade, it has been presided over by a prime minister and numerous national security ministers repeatedly accused of incompetence as corruption and crime have escalated. Added to incompetence is apathy in the face of the harsh realities their citizens face daily.

In a democratic country once considered a bastion of freedom and wealth, the present government has not just been guilty of locking borders and leaving citizens to suffer abroad during the pandemic but also awarded senior health officials the country’s highest honours for doing so. This despite Trinidad and Tobago being ranked as having the fifth-most Covid-19 deaths per million of its population in the Americas and 23rd most deaths per million in the world.

The plight of Trinidad and Tobago nationals stranded in the UK by Covid-19 prompted MP Steve Baker to raise questions in the Westminster parliament in October 2020 and call on the Trinidad and Tobago government to do the right thing and “make sure their citizens get home”. That appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Now, once again, Trinidad and Tobago is in the global spotlight for its agonising impotence in making decisions that require empathy and a conscience: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has this month called on the government to repatriate its nationals from prison camps in north-east Syria.

Over 90 nationals from Trinidad and Tobago, including 56 children, are being detained in Syria on suspicion of having links to IS. Despite the US and neighbouring Barbados having repatriated their citizens, the Trinidad and Tobago government has taken little action, leaving their nationals in dire conditions, lacking access to healthcare, water, shelter, education and recreation. Families are forced to hide their children in their tents to protect them from sexual predators, abusive camp guards and IS recruiters. Children have died from treatable illnesses; some have drowned in sewage pits or died in tent fires.

The Trinidadians are among nearly 42,000 foreigners from about 60 countries rounded up – along with 23,000 Syrians – in 2018 or early 2019 by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Trinidad and Tobago has had more people join IS per capita than any other western country: at least 130 between 2013 and 2016. Most went to Syria and Iraq as families, taking their children. The Trinidad and Tobago government has cited several reasons for not repatriating those who survive, including challenges in verifying nationality, and ascertaining whether those requesting repatriation have engaged in violence and whether children born in Syria are Trinidad and Tobago citizens.

However, aid groups and Syrian authorities have worked with many other countries to verify identities through DNA samples. If appropriate, countries can investigate and prosecute nationals once they are home.

Yet the authorities have taken little action, even after establishing the Nightingale Committee in 2018 to develop a policy for people returning from conflict areas. In 2020 draft legislation was said to be at an advanced stage but the government has failed to respond to repeated requests from UN officials and security experts to repatriate its citizens.

Leaving people in the locked camps, say the experts, carries greater risks – including escape and vulnerability to IS recruitment – than bringing them home. HRW has criticised the Trinidad and Tobago government for turning its back on its citizens, who in many cases are being held in degrading and inhumane conditions while having no opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention. [. . .]

For full article, see

[Above, photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images: “Children of foreign-born Islamic State fighters at a rehabilitation centre outside Qamishli, north-eastern Syria, in March this year.”]

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