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CARIBBEAN: Deportation Row Takes Centre-Stage at Caricom

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Jun 30 2009 (IPS) - Caribbean leaders are due to meet for a full working week starting Thursday to discuss issues ranging from climate change to the global economic crisis.

But two issues – the move by several countries to join a Venezuela-led leftist grouping of South American nations and a major row over deportations by several countries – could reverberate far beyond the meeting rooms this year, officials say.

The 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom) trade bloc’s headquarters in Guyana is the venue for the meeting, which appears to lack any other major agenda item than these two. Critics argue that while many Caribbean countries stress that tourism, foreign direct investment and remittances from the north have fallen off in the last year, the crisis is also manifesting in a new tendency toward national insularity.

While regional integration initiatives like the Caricom Single Market and Economy ultimately envision the free movement of people and goods throughout the region, under current rules, each member state has the right to set their own immigration policy.

Three of the most prosperous, Trinidad, Barbados and Antigua, are now moving to round up and deport thousands of nationals from countries like Guyana, Jamaica, St. Vincent and St. Lucia because of the strain they are putting on economies at a time when economic prospects are far less rosy than years ago when they tolerated undocumented workers.

The situation has led to the trading of harsh words by several current and former prime ministers, prominent people like retired Commonwealth Secretary General Sir Shridath Ramphal and Caribbean Development Bank President Compton Bourne.

So serious is the row over deportation of so-called illegals back to their native lands that leaders are due to meet in a special session on Jul. 2 to discuss the issue exclusively.

This is a full day before the actual meeting starts and there is every indication that tempers could flare as Guyana’s President Bharrart Jagdeo and St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves have said they are unlikely to cede any ground to Barbados in particular, where early morning raids to seek out undocumented workers have unnerved even the most strident supporters of deportations.

Still, Thompson says he will fight back and will pay for a live region-wide broadcast on the issue as he makes his case to send home the undocumented, some of whom have children born in their adopted home and are still being kicked out.

“I have announced a domestic immigration policy that is not a matter for other Caribbean prime ministers to comment on. It is a sovereign matter which our parliament and our policy directives base the objectives on,” he said.

“Therefore, to have a scenario where everybody is seeking to say something seems to me to be doing more to damage the objectives of Caricom than anything else,” Thompson argued.

Depending on which party is in government in some territories could determine the level of sympathy or disdain for foreigners. The governing Barbados Labour Party (BLP) has made no secret of its disagreement with the previous administration over its policy of openness and its virtual blind eye to non-Barbadians arriving on the island and is moving to carry out pre-election policies.

Oil and gas-rich Trinidad and Antigua have taken similar actions, if less “strident and inhumane”, to use the words of Barbados opposition leader Mia Mottley.

“A government is entitled to implement strong policies. These policies, however, must be applied consistently, fairly and humanely,” she said.

“For a country where people’s standard of living depends on people visiting our shores, any reputation of Barbados being inhospitable to visitors will affect our economy. A hostile environment for immigrants must not be an unwelcome environment for Caribbean visitors,” she said.

Meanwhile, Antigua and St. Vincent have become the latest Caribbean trade bloc countries to fully join the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a move that is likely to spark some discussion at the summit.

Secretary General Edwin Carrington said he always suspected that Venezuela would eventually demand more for granting concessionary oil to more than a dozen countries.

“There had to be something more to this, as we have been seeing,” he said recently.

Analysts say that should more countries join the Hugo Chavez-led alliance, it could eventually pose a threat to the trade bloc and its ambitions to be the sole umbrella political and economic organisation of the region.

Aware the region is watching, Antiguan Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer said as his twin island with Barbuda joined up that “our participation in ALBA is without prejudice to our obligations under the Treaty of Basseterre, the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas (Caricom) and other proposed economic and political alliances among member states.”

Another key agenda item is the issue of climate change, its effects on the region and demands by forested countries like Guyana and Suriname to be compensated for keeping their standing forests intact.

President Jagdeo of Guyana has been pushing the issue but trade bloc spokesman Leonard Robertson says the “region has to come up with a collective policy response” ahead of global climate change meetings in Europe later this year.

The prime ministerial sub-committee on international affairs will, meanwhile, meet in special session to discuss upcoming free trade talks with Canada and a futuristic one with the U.S. now that it is more than clear that a hemispheric trade pact will not be a possibility in the near future.

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