By Robert A. Emmanuel
Approximately 200 West Africans have left the shores of Antigua and Barbuda legally since late January, leaving an estimated 400 still in the country.
Chief Immigration Officer Katrina Yearwood revealed those figures at yesterday’s press conference held on the heels of Tuesday’s migrant boat tragedy.
The last official numbers released in early February stated that 637 African migrants were still here out of a total of 900-plus who arrived via charter flights from Nigeria in November and December.
Yearwood could not give precise numbers regarding how many remain now, pointing out that some may have left illegally.
“We would not be able to directly say how many are here based on the fact if it is that they left illegally that is not going to be picked up in the border management system,” she said.
Information Minister Melford Nicholas said the government would have to find out “how many persons are still within our jurisdiction and how do we account for it”.
“Presumably, this voyage went horribly wrong but it is [reasonable] that more unauthorised vessels would have transported persons from this jurisdiction under the radar, unbeknownst to law enforcement officials,” Minister Nicholas stated.
A fishing vessel carrying 30 African migrants from Antigua to St Thomas capsized early Tuesday morning near St Kitts. It is thought to have claimed the lives of 16 people.
Nicholas argued that had it not been for Tuesday’s incident, the government could have continued to be caught unaware of the potential issue of African migrant smuggling.
Earlier in the press conference, the Chief Immigration Officer said that a previous case of migrant smuggling was intercepted by law enforcement agencies in January, with 15 persons reported to have been on that vessel. The nationalities of that group remain unclear.
Today, the government will be meeting with representatives from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency UNHCR as part of efforts to uncover the facts as it relates to the West Africans.
This will include a needs assessment and a determination of how many Africans wish to be repatriated, although to date none have taken the government up on that offer.