Attorney-at-law Joseph Harmon who once headed the now defunct Juncata Juvant Friendly Society believes that it is the responsibility of the relevant government ministries to set up a system to help deportees who are made outcasts by society and often associated with negative activities.
His comments come in the wake of the deportation last month of 21 persons from the US who had not been
here for decades. Two of them related to Stabroek News the hardships they were experiencing and the fact that they had no relatives here.
Efforts to make contact with Human Services Minister Jennifer Webster for comments on what steps her ministry is putting in place to deal with deportees were futile.
In an interview with Stabroek News recently, Harmon said that it is up to the Human Services and Home ministries to work out what to do with these people if they have no relatives living here. Prior to the Juncata Juvant closing its doors in 2011, the organization had approached these ministries for assistance but got no luck. “The issue of funding back then from them, nothing came out of that but I am saying that it is a dereliction of their duty to the citizens of Guyana by not providing some sort of a shelter or something for these people”, he said.
According to Harmon, the concept of providing a shelter for people who come back must be connected to the opportunity for them to live and lead useful lives as citizens. “You have to focus more on the reintegration into society rather than imprisoning them into another area. So the Human Services Ministry has to dedicate resources to this. Maybe they should have a department that deals with persons who have been involuntarily returned to this country and the specific officer or officers at the ministry that are dedicated to dealing with this issue”, he said.
“What I am calling for is a Department within the Ministry of Human Services with support from the Ministry of Home Affairs to be established that will accommodate these persons when they return if they have no family to deal with them and to try to create conditions which will make them useful to the citizens of the country”, he said. He added that deportees are often skilled persons who can contribute to the development of the country.
Harmon seemed skeptical of the rebirth of an organization similar to Juncata Juvant but stressed that it is the State’s responsibility to put mechanisms in place for deportees so that they may be reintegrated into this society. He said that regardless of what the person is deported back home for, he/she is a Guyanese citizen and thus ought to be treated like one. “The view is held that some of these people did not commit any offence in Guyana and therefore they should not be treated as criminals but unfortunately that is the way they are treated”, he said noting that once they arrive here they are stigmatized. “They are all dabbed with one broad brush that they are criminals”, he said adding that these persons are sent home for many different reasons, some for minor immigration matters.
Harmon who is also an executive member of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and a MP said that the stigma exists because unfortunately “some of these persons when they come back here they have no support base. The State does not provide a social net for them. A number of them who come back here have no familial relationship because they may have left here when they were little children and come back as adults… therefore they are left to their own devices”. He said that when this happens some get involved in gangs and “therefore the actions of some persons basically stigmatize all the others who might have come”.
“There is also the fact that because there is no social service that is specific to those persons you find a number of them having to sleep in the open”, he said while singling out places such as Burnham Court, just outside the Marriott Hotel site and Plastic City, West Demerara.
He stressed that “you have people who are in this condition and therefore their primary condition is to survive and people do things sometimes that are not socially acceptable just on the basis of wanting to survive and also what we find happening also .. our press sometimes identifies them as a particular group when there are criminal activities”.
He made the point that the issue of deportees is not something that can be swept under the carpet or something to be left to private citizens or Non-Government Organizations. “This is a government responsibility and they have to step up to the plate”.
Harmon referred to a programme set up under the George W. Bush administration which allocated money to assist persons to be reintegrated back into society.
He was referring to an International Organisation for Migration-administered programme which was expected to help hundreds of deportees from the USA through financing of micro-enterprises and skills training pilot project.
Harmon told Stabroek News that the US government back then had set aside monies for Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana. That programme subsequently ended and there was no public report on its impact.
“After the funds for that came to an end there was nothing else done”, he said, noting that his organization benefited from that funding. When the funds were exhausted he said they made attempts to raise funds locally to support those persons. He pointed out that these people needed help because most times when they came back here “they have nothing, just the clothes on their backs”. He said that the organization helped to provide identification documents and find jobs for them.
One the issue of identification documents, Harmon said that deportees ought to be given some sort of temporary identification until such time that they can get something permanent because “other than that they are just walking around as a stateless person”.
He said that government cannot provide jobs for them but what they can do is provide the facility to allow them to get their identification cards, to provide relocation training for them and provide temporary facilities for them. “After that it is really up to them because you are not trying to create a whole class of mendicants”, he said adding that government can create the conditions which would allow these persons to utilize their own skills.
“We believed that the private sector is really the engine of growth and that governments cannot really provide employment for everybody. Government must provide a framework within which businesses would strive. I think that that is really where we need to focus”, he said.
Harmon told this newspaper that he believes that a person who has been deported is a Guyanese person and “he is entitled to a fair life, a good life like any other Guyanese. I believe that these people should be given an opportunity to make their contribution to the development of the country and at the same time to make a life for themselves”.
While noting that he has never stopped looking into the interest of deportees, he said “No group of Guyanese should be left to languish as if they are not full-fledged citizens of this country, they have a right here and they have a right to share in the wealth and resources and a caring society is a society that would take care of these people and provide a social net to catch them when they fall through the cracks”, he said.
Like Harmon, former police commissioner Winston Felix believes that it is government’s responsibility to create policies and a suitable environment to help deportees adjust to their new surroundings.
Felix who is also an APNU MP said that he is unsure whether there are any organizations in place to help deportees. “The question of jobs doesn’t appear readily available so even if a deportee would want to live a constructive life, the first thing he would be set back by is his inability to get a job locally. Once it is known he is a deportee there is this red flag which comes up”.
Asked why the stigma exists, he said that most deportees have a background that involves drugs and serious crimes. What can be done to help? Felix’s suggestion is for there to be a resettlement programme. “We have to prepare society to accept those who want to work and those who have skills. I think there is need for a more social service-like approach. I am not saying that these men come back and they are innocent and they are incapable of committing crime. I am saying that we have to give them a chance to be rehabilitated”, Felix said.
During his days in the Police Force he said, deportees had to report at specific times. He said that in the initial stages this was a good idea.
AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan told Stabroek News in an invited comment that “I don’t know of any (support system) and I rather suspect there isn’t any that is presently being conceived or programmed”.
For him such a support system is vital as “it is important that at least they have a place where they could turn to at least for supervision and at least for a two, three years of that until they become law abiding citizens and so that they can convert their lives back into being regular law abiding citizens”.
At the signing in 2009 for the US assistance, Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee had said that some 2939 Guyanese nationals convicted for criminal offences were deported during the period 1996-2007 at an average of 245 criminal deportees a year. He had added that the figure excluded persons deported for immigration offences. During that same period 1528 criminal deportees were returned from the US, at an average of 127 persons per year.