One of the innovations of constitutional reform, the sectoral committees of Parliament can undoubtedly help to richen the engagement between the people and the legislature. It can do this by holding regular hearings on matters of public interest which would be accessible to citizens and calling in experts and civil society for inputs on current developments for example the large number of job losses in various sectors – recently fisheries – and what could be done to staunch this. The committees can also interrogate ministers of the government and officials of state agencies and corporations.
On June 13th, the Sectoral Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by PPP/C MP Gail Teixeira analysed arrival and departure records which had been submitted upon its request by Minister of Citizenship Winston Felix. In passing, it would be remembered that under the PPP/C government Ms Teixeira was the Minister of Home Affairs while Mr Felix was the Commissioner of Police and Chief Immigration Officer so their interest and involvement in this area predates the parliamentary hearing.
The figures submitted by Mr Felix are disturbing and require immediate and clear explanations. Indeed, having been in possession of the figures, Mr Felix’s ministry should have already done the requisite investigations and analyses and handed these simultaneously to the parliamentary committee. Or is it the case that such analyses of figures aren’t done in government? Two groups in particular gave rise to concerns: Cubans and Haitians. From 2016, when air transport links between Georgetown and Havana improved significantly, thousands of Cubans have poured in and have no doubt boosted the economy through the purchase of a wide variety of good and services. This is a welcome development and a further strengthening of the warm and fraternal ties that have long existed between the two countries and underpinned in particular by Cuba’s generous support in the area of medical education. However, the immigration figures provided by Mr Felix do provide cause for concern.
In the year 2016, the figures show that 21,165 Cubans arrived and 19,225 departed, a disparity of around 2,000. In 2017, the disparity was even greater. The figures show that 44,747 Cubans arrived and only 37,492 departed- roughly 7,000 unaccounted for. For this year, the trend continued as up to April this year 22,520 Cubans had arrived but only 16,350 had been reported as having departed.
Some of the disparity could be attributed to the time lapse between the departure and the actual recording i.e. there may have been overstays who departed after the reporting period. On the other hand, the recording system of the immigration authorities may be poor and this is why such disparities are being recorded. If, however, there is an arrival record there must be a corresponding departure and if there isn’t well then there is a big problem. For a long time, Cubans and other nationalities have sought to use Guyana as a springboard for other destinations. Unofficial departure then becomes an excursion into the underworld of human trafficking, forged documents, corruption, criminal violence and all of its other unsavoury strands.
The same could be the plight of thousands of Haitians who have travelled here. Over the years, there have been many claims of Haitians being accommodated in various parts of the country for unknown reasons. This has fed into a series of conspiracy theories. The figures provided by Mr Felix now require diligent and thorough investigations by the law enforcement and public security departments.
In 2017, there was a surge in arrival of Haitians. The arrivals figure was 3,515 but only 291 were recorded as having departed. Up to April this year, it was much the same: 1,238 had arrived and only 85 had been recorded as having left. These figures are disturbing.
In March this year, former Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart complained about Haitians having to obtain visas to travel to fellow CARICOM countries. He said: ““Barbados has always thought that this was a little inequitable and discriminatory. Therefore, we were able to provoke an energetic discussion among regional leaders and I think the way forward seems much clearer now.
“The Legal Affairs Committee is being commissioned to look at all the issues surrounding Haiti’s membership and to advise the [heads of government] conference for July as to whether there is any legal basis for denying Haitians rights which all other CARICOM members enjoy.”
As citizens of CARICOM, Haitians must be accorded all of the travel rights assigned under the treaty and be treated as regional brothers and sisters. Further, they must be protected from exploitation and privations of high crimes such as human trafficking.
It has been surmised for some time that Haitians have been travelling here with the intention of onward journeys to Cayenne in French Guiana and other parts of the francophone Caribbean. It would be no problem at all if travel to third countries was via legitimate means and through a recognised port of exit with all of the relevant paperwork. Illegal entry to other countries by transiting Guyana could create significant diplomatic difficulties for George-town.
The Chair of the committee, Ms Teixeira was convinced that the disparity in figures meant that human trafficking was taking place.
“It’s not a question of who is trickling in. The issue is not who is coming and going; it’s the issue of the numbers remaining and where you can’t find them, you can’t see them…This is trafficking, this is trafficking”, She asserted.
It is something the ministerial task force on human trafficking should investigate and address. It is unclear what has transpired with these figures but both Mr Felix and Minister of Foreign Affairs Greenidge should do their utmost to provide clear answers and analysis to Parliament.
The figures also showed the arrival of Venezuelans in just hundreds compared to the over one million that have streamed into Colombia since the deepening of the crisis in our western neighbour. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should explain to the parliamentary committee what steps are being taken to humanely address the arrivals of Venezuelans and how new guidance from the UN refugee agency on their treatment is being handled.