A small number of Guyanese in St Martin are giving their compatriots a bad reputation

Dear Editor,

It is regrettable that Guyanese have drawn the attention of the authorities in St Martin (St Maarten), with their criminal activities being the subject of international media attention. They are unnecessarily on the radar.

St Martin is a lush tropical paradise, a quiet friendly place, a jewel of the Caribbean, and Guyanese make a decent living there – a very high income compared with Guyana.  And now a few bad apples have made it difficult for the sizeable community settled there.  I travel to St Martin on a regular basis and use the visits to write about Guyanese, and for studies on cultural pluralism.  I was last on the island two years ago interviewing Guyanese and immigrants from several Caribbean territories and am planning a follow-up visit for later in the year.

St Martin has divided control with two halves – the friendlier, more populated Dutch side and not so friendly French side. Guyanese are found mostly on the Dutch side with a sprinkling of them on the French side.  While Guyanese are the focus of attention on the Dutch side for illicit activities, they are better behaved on the French side, being careful not to run afoul of the law. From the French side, one can get to other islands, especially for Guyanese who wish to go to Anguilla where some Guyanese are working in the high-end tourist industry. I rented from the home of a local family on the French side in my last trip. They were quite friendly allowing me to pick fruit from their yard. The French whites were not so friendly in their small shops or in the resorts.

Once I met and interviewed an elderly man of mixed French and African descent who related his experiences meeting other Caribbean soldiers, including Guyanese, in Europe on the battlefield during WWII. He related the courage and bravery of our soldiers and their friendliness and warmth during the war.

There are immigrants from all over the Caribbean working in St Martin, including from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Grenada, St Kitts, St Vincent, etc, most of whom seek gainful employment but some of whom are into nefarious activities.  However, it is mostly though not exclusively the Guyanese, Jamaicans, and Dominicans, I was told, who seem to be the target of the attention of the authorities for illicit activities. They are engaged in all kinds of criminal activities including smuggling of immigrants and drugs.

The standard of living on the island is high – much higher than the immigrants’ home countries and as such it serves as a pull for immigrants, although jobs are scarce now that the global economy has shrunk and tourist arrivals are not at their peak.

The immigrants are poorly paid compared with native-born workers, but they still enjoy a better standard of living than in Guyana.  The illegals work and hide in order to avoid attention. And the many who have work permits are concerned that the bad ones are hurting their chances to stay and work on the island. St Martin did offer an amnesty to illegals a couple years ago with conditionalities.  I don’t know how many were eligible and took advantage of it.

That will be my investigation when next I visit in the Fall.

In St Martin, I met Guyanese Americans who came to the island to visit relatives – a reflection of the size of the community and an indication that Guyanese have put down roots there. One can get a lot of products from Guyana on the island.  Some Guyanese fish is sold in the supermarkets, but not enough to meet demand.  I was able to purchase roti, phulourie and other Guyanese delicacies. And on weekends, I would eat on the French side at a flea market where one can purchase fried salt fish and other Guyanese-type dishes.

Virtually every resort I visited or anywhere I travelled, I met Guyanese working.  They are entrenched in the tourist industry and on the whole are productive residents not seeking to get into trouble or bring attention to themselves. Employers love them for their work ethic (although in their own country they may lack such a work ethic).

On weekends and Friday evenings, one can find them at selected clubs or bars on the Dutch side – especially at a club behind the airport.  Some of them are raucous and noisy, drawing unnecessary attention.  Some are seen playing dominoes and cards or just simply hanging out.  But they are not looking for trouble – they are simply taking a weekend break from the daily monotony of hard work.  The police visit them anyway because they are quite visible by their physical features or accent.

Some of them are well known to authorities and serve as snitches informing on others. Guyanese told me that that the authorities regularly stopped them and asked for their working papers or evidence of residency permits or citizenship.  Although I visited the island several times and stayed on both sides, I was never stopped and questioned by authorities. I was told that several Guyanese and immigrants from Haiti and other islands have moved to Paris and Amsterdam after acquiring St Martin “papers.”

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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