A sad aspect of my coming to Barbados has been to discover a sentiment that I really did not know existed in the Caribbean--a fear and dislike of foreigners, in particular those from other Caribbean islands or countries. I had lived in England for 30 years and seen first hand the wide scale fear of foreigners exhibited by the host white population, especially against those with brown or black faces. These took on many violent manifestations from personal attacks, torching of homes, desecration of property etc. Over the years the friction between the host and immigrant populations sometimes bubbled up into violent confrontations between groups that were even riots, involving deaths of civilians and police.
I had seen this fear extend in England to other white foreigners from elsewhere in Europe, who looked like the majority population but were not from England and maybe spoke other languages, especially Serbians (exiles from war) or other eastern Europeans (such as Poles, moving for economic reasons).
England was by no means unique and similar tendencies have existed in several western European countries (France, Germany, Holland, for example); but it also has its manifestation in eastern and central Europe (Russia, parts of the former Yugoslavia, for example).
The complaint was often the same: "they take our jobs"; "they get social services that they have not paid for"; "they live [big number] to a room"; "they push down wages"; "they are destroying the country's social fabric", etc.
I knew that in the Caribbean the groups that were of African origin sometimes viewed with mistrust those of Indian or Pakistan origins, who often occupied economic positions as merchants and businessmen and thus seemed to have their hands on many levers of economic control. This mistrust extended to the political sphere with the group out of power feeling that those in power would rule along lines that favoured the respective ethnic groups. But this broad hostility between races or ethnicities was largely confined to two countries, Trinidad and Guyana, where the racial/ethnic balance was about equal. It was also essentially an internal problem, not focused on migrants.
I really cannot say how widespread the sentiment against foreigners is in Barbados, but it has manifested itself widely enough in commentaries in the newspapers and on several prominent blogs. There, it extends to utterances about not wanting to be part of a Caribbean grouping that might contain the likes of Jamaica (with its immense crime problem) or Guyana (with its abject poverty).
Ironically, as I sat in church this morning, the Gospel passage was from Matthew chapter 35, verses 31-46:
Verse 34-36: Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.'
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
As I reflected on what I wanted to write today, I was struck by something ironic. My wife and I stood near the altar of her family's church in Nassau to be blessed for our upcoming anniversary, along with others celebrating anniversaries and birthdays. There we were next to a couple of Bajans celebrating 56 years of wedded bliss. They had arrived in The Bahamas in 1956 and though they had visited Barbados regularly since, had ever returned to resettle. Add to this irony that after church, as I exchanged information with this Bajan couple, another Bajan exile joined us; he too had been in Nassau for at least 30 years ago (and is a brother of a current Bajan bishop). Each of these had been part of a wave of teachers, policemen, and medical personnel sought from the rest of the Caribbean not long after World War II.
What we know anecdotally and from statistics is that Bajans have enriched themselves and their country over the past 50 or so years by relying on other Caribbean nations' willingness to take them in. Jamaica was another popular port of call for Bajans. Further back in time, we know that many Bajans went to Panama to help build the canal. So, it really jars when one senses a wave against those who may wish to migrate to Barbados. This is not to say that immigration is a neutral process. Clearly, host populations tend to view foreigners with varying degrees of suspicion. Clearly, Bajan migration to other countries is not seen as an issue.
The animosity one perceives in Barbados is aimed largely at those who come from very poor Caribbean countries, particularly Guyana. I get no sense that Bajans are antagonistic to the flood of British migrants and investors. The difference may simply reflect where the entrants find themselves on the economic ladder: Guyanese may be involving themselves in areas that put them into direct competition with Bajans for jobs (e.g. construction) and social services, while the British are in areas where they are not really in competition with Bajans (real estate investment, for instance). It would also reflect the extent to which entrants had to mingle with existing Bajans: once migrants have to find housing in the midst of the existing population, friction often arises as different cultural and social practices come face-to-face.
The fear of immigrants often takes on a characteristic which is even hard to understand by those who utter it. I met a coconut vendor the other day and our conversation drifted to job opportunities. He thought he could perhaps go to the Washington DC and make this business work there. I pointed out the problem of the absence of coconuts in DC. He then mentioned Florida, and I replied that I somehow felt that the business was already well developed there. He then complained about Guyanese "taking jobs from Bajans". I asked him for his direct experience, and if he could tell me how many Guyanese were now coconut vendors: one, he replied. We then discussed areas where he thought Guyanese were taking jobs from Bajans and he mentioned construction and agriculture, where "they work for lower wages". I asked him what it was about the Bajan worker that stopped him offering himself at lower wage rates and he went on about "not being able to live" on such wages. I then asked him to take a tour of some local neighbourhoods and see how many Bajans he could find that looked that they did not have a job but also looked like they were seeking one. We talked about "boys on the block" and he said that most of these did not want regular work but preferred to hustle and "do a little thing" to earn money, which I took to mean crime including drug dealing. But in the end the problems he perceived had nothing to do with Guyanese immigrants.
Politicians have an important role to play in dealing with these issues. The issue of immigration is emotive so needs to be steered with as much good information as possible because misinformation is rife.
If there is a problem with illegal immigrants, it is not good enough to not give some numbers. If the numbers do not exist then please tell us how you can conclude there is a problem. If there is a problem of monitoring by the Immigration Department, then tell us what that is and what solutions are being considered.
If the scale or nature of legal immigration is a problem, then tell us what are the flows and what part of the legal immigration is out of control. If the view is that the policies and regulations are no longer appropriate then the weaknesses need to be highlighted and solutions discussed.
If Barbados feels that the provisions of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy with regard to free movement of labour pose particular threats then explain those concerns and indicate what if anything can be done to alleviate those.
It is too easy to feed people's prejudices and suspicions and the danger of letting them grow can easily become catastrophic.
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