Thoughts on Prime Minister Thompson’s New “Amnesty”

In the Diaspora (This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guy-ana and the Carib-bean)

By Annalee Davis(Annalee Davis is a Barbadian Visual Artist, living and working in Barbados on a series of forty-five artistic projects that investigate the impact and anxieties of intra-regional Caribbean immigration.  Please view to complete the questionnaire if you have a migratory experience you would like to share or to see her work.)

On Tuesday, May 6th 2009, Prime Minister David Thompson politely informed Parliament of the policy determined by the Subcommittee on Immigration set up in June 2008.  Non-nationals have one month to turn themselves into Immigration to regularize their status or be “removed” from December 1 2009.

We might respectfully remind our leaders to adhere to the spirit of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, be cognizant of the human element within Treaty negotiations and be aware of the contributions of the region’s working people and their lived reality.

On Monday, May 11th, I accompanied a friend to the Immigration Department.  Her Immigrant application was submitted two years ago, she was interviewed eighteen months ago and her stamp was due to expire that week.

While waiting, a gentleman told me he has resided in Barbados for fifteen years.  One of his two children writes the Common Entrance Examination in 2010.  Status still pending, Immigration said he needs another Medical Examination.  “Send me back to St. Vincent”, he told them, refusing to comply.

My friend exited from the cubicle.  The officer told her of chaos in the Immigration Department, that personnel were shifted to stamp out corruption and that many people will be deported back home.  She kindly advised my friend to have a Plan B.  Apparently, work permits can be ‘purchased’ for BDS$20,000.00 (US$10,000.00) and for a price, one can even marry a dead Bajan.

Although the Prime Minister has converted the five year amnesty into an eleven and half year amnesty, which will entail the voluntary and forced return of most CARICOM nationals residing in Barbados, he states his commitment to regional integration, in particular Article 45, that allows for the free movement of all nationals within the community.

Where is the evidence of his commitment?  Is it in the raids at the bus stand and nightclubs where CARICOM nationals are handcuffed and deported? Or, as Rickey Singh asked, do we see a commitment to regional integration when CARICOM nationals respond to official notices, asking them to collect passports or attend interviews, only to be deported?

This new ‘Amnesty’ has evoked much discussion. Some criticise the PM for focusing on illegal CARICOM nationals only, while others blame migrants for taking jobs, taking local men/women, squatting, polluting the nation’s water, committing crimes, smuggling drugs, engaging in prostitution and burdening our nation in their thousands.

The truth is that the vast majority of CARICOM nationals in Barbados are not criminals, murderers or thieves. Many work seven days a week, improving their lives while supporting extended families back home.  Notably, they struggle on their own without any institutional framework where they might seek advice or lodge a complaint.

One construction worker told me he claimed dependents while filing his Barbadian taxes. He was told he could not claim, because they do not live here.  He replied that he was not allowed to bring his family here but he still supported them.  He cooks, cleans and launders his clothes while working seven days a week.  His wife raises the children back home without husband or father.  The tax officer told him to keep quiet because he might be required to pay back taxes on previous claims.  He stays quiet, out of fear.

Is this commitment to the regional integration process?

For those migrants who cannot ‘pass’ for being Bajan, there are other humiliations.  The Indo-CARICOM migrant is exposed to verbal abuse on the bus and in the supermarket, and in some instances, is being spat on while walking the streets.

All of this begs the question, outside of geographic terms, how inclusive is the term ‘Caribbean’ when some of us feel more or less legitimate than others?  And when do migrants become something other than unacceptably high in their numbers, mere units of labour or a statistic in an official report about providers of remittances?  What will it take for us to see the migrant as a human being with dreams for a better life?  Where is the compassion for our Caribbean brothers and sisters?

If PM Thompson wants to protect the migrants from abuse, instead of doubling the amnesty, he might consider reverting to the humane five-year policy while implementing contingent rights, and encouraging signatories to the Treaty to do likewise.  Instead of being complicit in the breakdown of the family unit, he might extend the right to move to immediate family members of migrant workers.  The PM might also consider dialoguing with a newly formed Barbadian organization campaigning for a more humane immigration policy.

PM Thompson’s budget last Monday had several Bible quotes.  Missing was the one about “love your neighbour as yourself”.  Maybe that doesn’t fit into the “Team Barbados” concept we are all to adopt while working to build a stronger nation.

Sadly, this dilemma is not peculiar to Barbados.  Insularity, xenophobia and fear of the “other” are rampant throughout the region.  The region aspires to the philosophy ‘Team Nation’.  We are flag waving entities, independent and separate.  Wave your flag!

At the Heads of Government Conference in February 2007, leaders decided we would achieve full free movement by the end of 2009.  That’s six months away, taking us to December 1 2009, when the Thompson administration will start ‘removing’ illegal CARICOM nationals en masse.  So much for that decision!

My colleague from a Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME) unit told me “unfortunately, I don’t think that the non- implementation of the 2007 decision will result in any protests, because in most countries we have encountered the same fears as in Barbados.  In Antigua and Barbuda we were told bluntly that they don’t want the Community to add new categories.  Furthermore our NGO’s are having the same bias as the rest of their community, so they will not protest either.  Work on contingent rights is progressing slowly, because Member States are concerned about cost and capacity factors.”

Lloyd Best said that we have all been transplanted from many places and forced into the straitjacket of slavery, indentureship and colonialism and the most important thing for us to do is to find a home, find a community and found a community.  The Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, signed by fourteen CARICOM countries, was in theory a move towards building our regional home.

Tragically, our leaders don’t see it as their responsibility to nurture regional consciousness, encouraging CARICOM nationals to develop a sense of regional belonging.

Given recent developments, maybe we should revise the revised Treaty, get rid of that vexing Article 45.  Stop raising the hopes and dreams of these poor bastards who toil from sun up to sun down, building hotels, cleaning toilets, serving drinks.

Let’s be honest, we don’t want to be a community.  Hail – Team Barbados!  Team Jamaica!  Team Trinidad!

And what of Team Caribbean?  You can find that on a page in your daughter’s school atlas.  Tell her it’s a theoretical concept. Pure rhetoric.  Not grounded in anything factual.  Just emotive banter.