Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Parse The Duchy: What Is The Immigration Debate Saying?

If you have not been on Planet Barbados for the past few weeks, you will not have known that the big issue is no longer Crop Over, or the 11-plus exams, or West Indies cricket, or Michael Jackson's death, or Wayne and Colleen Rooney's beach holiday, or my step-daughter's assault on the island with her over-energetic but really fun-loving friends. THE issue has been immigration.

Barbados, like all of its Caricom fellows, is a nation begun by migrants, admittedly many were forced here as slaves, but migrants they were. Barbados, similarly, is a country that has built itself by letting its nationals go abroad to work for a time or even to stay abroad forever: to build the Panama Canal; to cut cane in Guyana; to nurse and police in other Caribbean countries; to 'help the motherland' when England called for labour; to seek better working and living conditions in Canada and the USA. Barbadians know well the value of leaving home to better oneself. I am sure that Barbadians knew and know too the hostility that greeted and still greets the new arrival in a place like Guyana, or England, or the USA, or The Bahamas.

But, to follow the current set of discussions--and I am not one who believes that a loud voice does nothing else but drown out others--it is clear that little of this has any bearing. Whatever politicians may say that a policy is not targeting a particular ethnic or racial group, you have to be kidding yourself if you did not realise that the Barbadian beef (and there is irony in that noun, given that the targets are assumed to be Hindus) is with 'Indo-Guyanese'. You get a lot of supposedly substantive arguments against this group for being 'smelly', 'musty', 'clannish', 'not like us', 'scheming', 'wanting to take over', etc. It's at that level. Sure enough, there is exploitation in this whole relationship between nationals and illegal immigrants; there is supply and demand to deal with. One of my observations has been about the relevant quietness of those with vested interests. Maybe, they are working as they need to, in the background. But, the popsters have come clean in exploiting the 'battle' by singing at each other's wake (see Nation report), as a Guyanese lady gives Bajan ladies advice on how to keep a man, and a Bajan lady retorts and tries to get back on top, so to speak.

You also get the impression that for a certain group of nationals, once the offensive Guyanese have been dealt with, then all other 'non belongers' (to borrow the terms used by Tortolans) will be on the radar screen. So, we can wait with bated breath as Vincentians, Jamaicans, and Chinese line up for their slug of opprobrium. I will line up for nights to get seats to see the Barbados-People's Republic of China match up: 280,000 yellers against one billions yellows (no offence meant).

I pointed out to some commentators that their concerns should really be focused on the English, who with their obvious wealth and love of Barbados could suck up this island as swiftly as they could down a pint of Courage bitter. The English (and let's be honest, Europeans) have a terrible history of destroying lands that they newly visited: the now-extinct Dodo of Mauritius; the Incas; the Mayans; the Caribs; the Arawaks; native Americans; African tribes; splitting up ethnics groups (Iraq, Africa)--all gone after disease and antipathy got to them, or thrown into centuries of confusion and conflict. Much as I like England, after living there most of my life, I would not want to have to settle for the hokey-cokey as my way of 'getting jiggy' when I already have the rub-up culture or dutty win' and bumper riding. So, I think the eyes better refocus before all the trappings that make this little isle seem like 'Little England' make their way for a true second colonization.

I have listened to, read, and argued with a few commentators. I wont comment on what I think about the intelligence of many of those with whom I have crossed words. I will say that they have been people filled with emotion about this issue.

I have read remarks that tell me that people will quickly resort to a sweeping damning statement rather than argue on any merits, so that they can move on with their diatribe. So, you have to wonder how someone could think that the legacy of Louise Bennett, Paul Bogle, Bob Marley, Norman Manley, and even my humble parents and grandparents, can be called the same as the common gun-toting murderous gangster who is marauding Kingston and Montego Bay, or exporting his talents to the streets of New York, or the alleys of Manchester and Brixton.

I have also been really surprised at people who are from one of the targeted nations or national groups, but are known for their experience in the use of diplomatic language; who represent or represented the Caribbean and Commonwealth; and who are well experienced in handling the media. Suddenly, they seem to think they are in a bar or hanging out at cricket and utter words that can only inflame, even with a lot of explanation of intent and context. "Intimation" is quickly forgotten. I wont repeat the words or name the people because I find the words distasteful and do not even want to be near them; they have dug their furrows and now they need to haul the hoe to get the dirt sorted out.

What previous episodes of hostility to foreigners have shown is that the line of antipathy quickly moves: today's hated minority gets added to, and quickly covers anyone who is different or so-called 'not from here'. The irony is that there are few places where any group called nationals are the real aboriginals. But, memories are short and history if often not known. You may even have people railing against people who are related to their own ancestors. When I talk to Barbadians I have to wonder which of them has a lineage that is wholly Barbadian for more than one generation: I know my circle is limited. But even the current prime minister opened the press conference in Georgetown by pointing minds towards his Guyanese grandfather. We know that the PM himself was born in England, of Barbadian parents. Many Barbadians have sought to dilute the national blood line by taking on partners from my own country--and for me, I have to ask why that choice?--or from other islands or other countries. Maybe, the otherwise ridiculous claim made by someone that Guyanese here outnumber Barbadians by 50,000-to-1, is silly but has a grain of truth.

But, let me get to the other part of the meat of this issue, politics and communication. In May, the PM unleashed a furore of criticism of himself and a country by announcing an amnesty for illegal Caricom-non-national immigrants who had overstayed, giving them six months to get regularised, from June 1. The ripostes from many quarters were loud and clear, and some loud and not so clear. Other heads of government, especially the PM of St. Vincent and the President of Guyana cried "foul". Former and current civil servants weighed in with observations about how people were being targeted and allegedly rounded up and dispatched from Barbados. The government said, "It ain't so."

The announcement came with no context to help substantiate the claims that the country's resources were being put under unbearable strain. Not a single figure was issued officially to say how many of these illegal miscreants were in the island and how many were expected to be removed by the amnesty. No indication was given of how many legalised Caribbean non-nationals would remain: this is not trivial. if you really have 50,000-70,000 illegals flopping around, and only half of them decide to regularise themselves, you still have a sizable number (relative to this island's total population. If the original number is closer to 5,000-7,000 (and the range of estimates give figures of that size), then the original 'problem' was really much exaggerated in terms of sheer numbers and the remaining problem would similarly be less. But, who needs numbers? I have heard ministers and permanent secretaries who are responsible for immigration shudder me with silence on the basic size of the issue they are dealing with. Too boot, the Auditor General put the boot in by saying in his report a few weeks ago that the management information system for the Immigration Department could not give the relevant data to manage immigration. Where have I heard this story before? Aha, the inconvenient should-do gap.

But, as this Sunday starts and I look for inner peace, my discomfort is at a new level. I heard the PM mention to a bevvy of journalists in Georgetown a number of things. He talked about people officially 'deported' (with their passports stamped to that effect) and being 'asked to leave...and escorted to the airport', and said those those things were not the same. He's right in some statutory sense, but in an operational sense, if a country asks you to leave and ensures that you do that, then materially you have been deported, whether your passport says that or not. It's a moot point under what conditions you may return; you have been thrown out. That may explain the huge discrepancy between the 4 persons Barbados says it deported and the 29 that Guyana's president says he received as deportees.

I also heard the PM talk about announcing a new immigration policy soon. Wait a minute, I said to myself. Should that not have been a step taken before the announcement of the amnesty? That promise was mentioned in yesterday's The Advocate (p9). I wondered, therefore, what would have been wrong with the following scenario:
July 2/3: Announce to Caricom heads of government (HOGs) that Barbados will be publishing a new immigration policy from August 1 (implied date in the PM’s remarks). Indicate that it may have several important elements that will affect certain Caricom national groups [this is no major secret, because of the general knowledge of from where people are coming] but it prepares the ground. [The PM also has a ready-made forum for bilateral talks with HOGs to touch on certain sensitivities on all sides, out of the public glare.]

July 4+: After Caricom HOGs meeting, announce that the new policy will involve an amendment to amnesty for certain Caricom non-nationals with effect from August 1, giving details (this is the same as the announcement in May with a June 1 start date).

My nagging question is why, with a long period of ineffective control over illegal migrants to Barbados, it was necessary to precede the general policy announcement with the declaration of an amnesty, whose context was not clear? Moreover, is/was the 2 months difference really so important and why?

Some commentators have pointed to possible sinister motives behind the previous government's approach to illegal immigration, intimating that it was to “teach Bajan voters a lesson”, intimation a plan to help build a 'permanent voting majority' from the migrant community's voting (see "Is There More To Unchecked Migration Than Meets The Eye?" on Barbados Underground). Well, whatever the reality of such contentions, the plot seemed a bit botched up because the the previous government are previous not current--they lost the election.

Some commentators are arguing that the current government has little to offer in these recessionary times and have drawn water at the well of populist sentiment and pulled out 'the race card'. It's a card played strategically and frequently by politicians and has the great effect of neutralising its opponents, who immediately seem 'unpatriotic' and 'the ones who got us into this mess'. Any counter arguments from other countries naturally sound like 'their' voices telling 'us' what to do. But the card played is really 'the jack of spades' (and for those who do not know how to read Tarot cards, it could be time to learn): it's a card that creates conflict and division, while holding unexpressed deception; it's sometimes seen as a 'golden apple' but is a true 'apple of discord'.


NedHamson said...

When times get tough, it seems, everywhere - even in beautiful Barbados - people start to think things will get better if the last ones to immigrate are forced to go home! If the Out of Africa theory that modern humans all developed and emigrated from the highlands of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya... then once everyone is sorted out, the highlands will be too crowded and we will have to emigrate again. Why not say: well here we all are, let's work together to make it better - grin.

Drey said...

That was long D. Geez.

Dennis Jones said...

Drey, it's short compared to lots of commentary I have seen on the subject. But, good for a Sunday read, nuh.

debate popular said...

What a problem that there are suffering. I hope it can be speedily resolved.