By Carlena Knight
They will not be afforded Antiguan and Barbudan citizenship, but the West African visitors who choose to remain in the country could be offered residency and work permits.
That confirmation came yesterday from Cabinet spokesperson, Information Minister Melford Nicholas, as questions linger after the government’s previous announcement that the hundreds of Africans who arrived in the country on charter flights in recent months will be allowed to remain.
“Antiguan passport? No…I don’t think that that is on the cards, but certainly the whole idea of residency and work permits, that is part of the legal framework that we are considering,” Nicholas told media during yesterday’s post-Cabinet press briefing.
The Africans’ arrival and failure to leave, having initially come into the country as ‘tourists’, has stirred controversy over the past few weeks, with the opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) even going as far as staging a protest outside the Office of the Prime Minister.
There is still no word on how many African refugees have decided to seek asylum in Antigua and Barbuda.
The Immigration Department has been tasked with tracking down and investigating just how many of the Africans would like to be repatriated – as the government has also offered – or remain in the country. But, according to Nicholas, Cabinet has yet to receive an update.
He did however say that for those who wish to stay, government will be looking at various options to ensure they do so legally while contributing to the country’s economic growth.
“One of the features that we have asked the Immigration to do is to do a skills audit amongst them as well, to determine whether or not we have some additional benefits to be derived from some of these persons that are here.
“As the economy continues to expand, we are going to need additional skills to be able to develop some of these projects and so, from the standpoint of having them integrate, and when we say integrate we mean integrate to become a full part of our society, we are asking Antiguans and Barbudans as they have already begun to do on their own account to embrace and have an open heart in respect to this matter,” Nicholas said.
Government said last week that 637 of the more than 900 people who touched down between November and January remained in Antigua. Many of them are Cameroonians fleeing a bloody conflict back home.
It is unclear how many of these asylum seekers came aboard Antigua Airways or other chartered airlines which the government and Antigua Airways officials claim mirrored their operations.
The announcement that they will be allowed to stay has prompted calls for more bipartisan discussions between the government and the opposition – but the government is insisting that it has no obligation to engage in that manner.
Opposition leader, Jamale Pringle, questioned the government’s stance during the party’s protest earlier this week and said more talks should have taken place before the decision was made.
“There are many areas in the parliamentary life of the country where there is opportunity for bipartisanship even dealing with issues of reports that are presented to parliament from time to time,” Nicholas said when questioned at Thursday’s press conference.
“The opposition serves on a number of the committees that have oversight over the work of the central government, and so there is every built-in opportunity for there to be bipartisanship dealing with those matters.
“If you take for example, the opposition wanted to engage myself or any other ministers on any particular matter and they wanted to raise it before the parliament then the opportunity is there in the order paper for them to pose questions to the ministers and it provides that engagement in the open forum for the public to see what is going on, but the responsibility for managing affairs of the state falls to the government of the day,” Nicholas said.
He added that his statements were not intended to bring malice or dismiss the value of the opposition, but were in line with the protocols established under the law.