By Carlena Knight
“There is no harm done in receiving and accepting them as our own,” Information Minister Melford Nicholas said yesterday, in relation to the hundreds of West African nationals currently in the country.
Nicholas told Thursday’s post-Cabinet press briefing that if these Africans do decide to stay, steps to ensure they do so legally must be taken.
According to this week’s post-Cabinet report, the visitors – the majority of whom flocked to Antigua between November and January via charter flights from Nigeria – were expected to be well-off citizens of Nigeria and neighbouring countries who wished to travel to the Caribbean as tourists.
However, based on multiple reports, many of the visitors – predominantly Cameroonians – are actually fleeing civil war in their homeland and left the motherland in search of a safe haven.
The government announced last week that it planned to repatriate them via a charter flight, prompting many of the refugees to plead to remain, saying they would be killed or imprisoned if sent back home.
But Cabinet said yesterday that arrangements are now likely to be made to ensure that their status is legal.
Precisely what those arrangements will be remains to be seen.
Nicholas acknowledged that Antigua and Barbuda is bound to certain international agreements that dictate the treatment of persons considered to be refugees.
“The question is the legal status and if they arrived here initially as tourists, how do we then move them into a position where they can be lawful residents here, and if for various reasons many of them wish to stay then we have to give due consideration to what changes in regulations or what special regulations will have to be put in place to allow them to lawfully reside here in Antigua and Barbuda with the ability to, of course, be able to seek employment and other conditions of stay,” Nicholas explained.
This was welcomed news by many of the West Africans.
“We are really happy to hear that. We rather stay here than go back to our country and die,” one person told Observer yesterday.
Another thanked the government “for looking into our situation and granting us this opportunity. We do not know how we would have done anything and we appreciate all of you. God bless you”.
According to Nicholas, 911 Africans entered the country between November 1 and last month. More than 200 have since departed, leaving 637 currently in the country.
Immigration officials have already indicated that they have the means to track these refugees and will make contact with them to ascertain whether they would wish to remain or be flown home.
The costs, Nicholas said, once they cannot afford the charter flight, would be covered by the government.
Critics may say that accepting the refugees could open a new can of worms for the country by inadvertently influencing more to flee to Antigua. However, Minister Nicholas pointed to mutual benefits.
And while he admitted government does take some responsibility for the saga by introducing Antigua Airways and the unintended consequences due to other charter companies mirroring its model, he said they will “not be shying away from trying to forge a way forward to offer flights and strengthen economic channels from the motherland”.
“Yes, we take responsibility but only from the standpoint that it is something that was inadvertent and we are going to fix it and work with it and, who knows, Western Africa has some of the better-known universities in that part of the world, so there may be skills in that population of 600 persons that could lead to further development of a beneficial development in our own country, in terms of cross-fertilisation of our own people here.
“We have no natural in-built fear of having these people among us and sometimes you have to turn these threats into opportunities so we are going to embrace them, those who wish to stay, we are going to find the legal means in allowing them to stay and incorporate them into our society,” Nicholas added.