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Immigration storm before Hurricane season

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22.MAY.09

The 2009 hurricane season in the Caribbean is 10 days away from its commencement, but Vincentian Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has created a storm of his own with a Parliamentary Statement in the House of Assembly on May 14, 2009.{{more}} The Statement entitled “Freedom of Movement in CARICOM” didn’t mince words as the Prime Minister railed against what he considers to be discriminatory treatment of the nationals of some Caribbean countries, St. Vincent and the Grenadines among them, by immigration officials in some CARICOM member-states. So strong does our leader feel that he took the extreme step of publicly raising “whether it would not be better for us (SVG) to refrain from participating in the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) …” in favour of limited participation in functional co-operation on specific issues.

Naturally, such a statement from a CARICOM Head of Government, and one who describes himself as a “committed regionalist” at that, is bound to make heads turn. And so it has. A furore has broken out in the region over the pros and cons of the Prime Minister’s strong words. As to be expected, Barbados, a country against whose officials such allegations of discrimination have been consistently aimed, has not taken kindly in official circles to Dr. Gonsalves’ comments. Incidentally it is not the first time that the Vincentian leader has found himself at loggerheads with his Barbadian colleagues. During the previous Barbadian administration, a row also broke out with our neighbour to the east over illegal drug shipments to that country.

In addition to the regional row, Gonsalves’ main political opponent, Leader of the Opposition, Arnhim Eustace, has taken him to task about the manner in which he has handled the situation. In principle, Eustace seems to recognize that there is a problem of free movement in the region, but he is of the opinion that the brash manner in which the issue was raised, may make it worse for Vincentians residing in Barbados or travelling there. The debate rages on with persons lining up on one side or another.

Significantly, almost all the views aired seem to concede that there is a problem concerning the Caribbean and freedom of movement. It is around this and not whether our Prime Minister should have said this or that, or the manner in which it was said, which ought to be the focus of attention. How can we carry CARICOM passports and be discriminated against in another CARICOM country? Why is it that in some countries, persons from extra-regional countries are more welcome than our own Caribbean people, with whom we share a common history, a common market, a regional university and a single international cricket team?

Rather than wash their linen in public, and exacerbate an already volatile situation, shouldn’t our leaders, as supposedly mature and responsible individuals, sit down collectively to address the “freedom of movement” issue in the region? Isn’t the collective CARICOM policy of an elite group entitled to free travel, itself discriminatory against the vast majority of Caribbean people? Whether one agrees with PM Gonsalves’ outburst or not, it has at least put the matter squarely in the public domain. We must demand of our leaders clear policies and just actions if we are not to jeopardize the very integration project we seem to hold so dear.

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