Editorial | Refugees from paradise
Merely a day after the United States (US) government reversed Trump-era rules that had made it harder for immigrants fleeing violence to qualify for asylum, 11 persons, including Jamaicans, came ashore on a South Florida beach.
Of all the ironies, they arrived just days before World Refugee Day which is dedicated to refugees around the world and is being commemorated this Sunday under the aegis of the UN refugee agency, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
It was Wednesday that US Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a new policy to immigration judges which called for them to cease following rules that hitherto made it tough for asylum seekers to be successful in their application.
The significance of this move by the US authorities comes at a time when border patrol is reporting an uptick in the number of persons risking life and limb in rickety boats to reach the American shore. In April, South Florida officials reported the highest number of encounters on the high seas in nearly 20 years.
Even though there are thousands of Jamaicans living illegally in the US, Jamaica as a source of asylum-seeking boat people may not be the kind of image we want to portray to the world. It was rather embarrassing to see young Jamaican men being caught and rounded up in a bid to enter the US illegally. One of the Jamaicans told reporters there was “pure killing in Jamaica” as he was being led away. He quickly established that he was fleeing from violence in his homeland.
It is estimated that more than 600 Jamaicans fled the country in 2019 and applied for asylum in countries such as Canada, US and Trinidad and Tobago. We don’t know what the fate of these Jamaicans will be, and it could be sometime before their asylum claims are processed and a decision made. However, South Florida has a long history of accepting refugees and migrants from countries like Cuba, Haiti, Honduras and elsewhere in Central America.
Massive migration is happening all over the world. Within the Caribbean, we see a growing trend with more than 40,000 Venezuelans entering Trinidad and Tobago and hundreds of Haitians crossing the Bahamian waters. Whether they are called refugees, asylum seekers or migrants, we must recognise the underlying drivers of migration which include poverty, hopelessness, persecution and violence. People make that tough decision to pull up stumps and leave their homes, sometimes in search of a job or trying to get away from abusive situations or community violence.
VIOLENCE A PART OF LIFE
As revolting as these images appear, they serve to bring home the point that extreme violence continues to be a part of life in Jamaica. Gang-related murders and reprisals have become commonplace and are of concern. As yet, the authorities have not responded with the robustness and determination expected. The fact is that at-risk communities are not seeing increased surveillance, visibility or enforcement priorities by the police.
So these men have fled violence, presumably to a safer place. However, recent headlines: “Wave of deadly gun violence sweeps South Florida”; “Shootings usher in bloody holiday weekend” suggest that South Florida is also dealing with violence in many of its communities. In the end, the Jamaicans may get an unexpectedly grim welcome.
Will this trend continue? Jamaica, the tropical paradise that attracts millions of visitors each year, is not able to provide safety for its own citizens by putting measures in place to get warring communities and gunmen under control.
We had better get at it, and quickly, before conditions worsen.