In September of 2014 I had a brief meeting with one Dr. Ahmed Shams at a Gros Islet building that would house the latest “offshore” academy. It was named Lambirds Academy and Dr. Shams informed me that the school would offer “British Degrees” in Hospitality, Tourism, ICT, Trade and Cruise.
He also boasted that what would set his academy apart from similar schools in the region was that students would be guaranteed paid internships and jobs. I was shown a certificate of accreditation, purporting to be from the Ministry of Education in Saint Lucia, bearing what appeared to be a particular government minister’s signature.At the time of my meeting with Shams the academy was also advertising a cook-off and baking competition among local contestants slated for October 2014.
I soon proceeded on vacation having promised Dr. Shams a feature story on my return to work. Our planned follow-up interview never happened.
A few weeks ago I received an email in the name “Devarul” headed “Mass Suicide Report.” The writer claimed to be one of about 150 students admitted to college by … (names omitted). There were some 300 more planning to register at the school after they were promised permanent residence following two years in Saint Lucia; USA or Canadian visas, 40-hour part-time jobs at $10 an hour, and free visas for family members. Also offered were hotel jobs that paid $450 a month.
The email writer also claimed students had each paid US$10,000 plus $4000 for additional visas for family members. However, after the money was paid and the students arrived here they were unable to reach their local hosts, one a female who the email writer claimed is the divorced wife of a former government minister.
The students claimed to have sold property and used family savings to raise the money to come to Saint Lucia in search of better days.
Their plea: “Sir, please take the action immediately before rest of the guys disappear. We already lost our life. If you are not take any action immediately we are all going to commit mass suicide.”
We had since attempted to validate the letter and attempted to verify the legitimacy of Lambirds.
The next time I heard of Dr. Shams was on Friday, February 27, when a colleague informed me that he had been brought in by local police officers for questioning. By the end of that day, I learned that Dr. Shams and five other individuals were in police custody. Several students who had been lured to the island by Lambirds’ too-good-to-be-true advertisement were also being questioned by the police. They were all from India and Nepal.
On Monday March 2, four of those earlier arrested were officially charged with human trafficking. They appeared in court the following day, Tuesday March 3, and were denied bail.
At a press conference on Tuesday, acting police commissioner Frances Henry said: “There were a number of initiatives undertaken in respect to our country constantly being invaded by some perpetrators out there, recognizing that there is opportunity in this country.”
Speaking directly of last week’s operation, Frances Henry said that a formal complaint had been received from some of the students and an investigation launched immediately. She went on: “About 4 a.m. Friday, police mounted an operation specifically targeting six locations throughout the north of the island.” At least sixty individuals were identified, six of whom were held for questioning. Suitable boarding is being sought for the stranded individuals, all non-nationals.
A number of documents were seized during the raid at various locations. Henry also disclosed that following Tuesday’s court appearance of the four, the matter would be down for case management on March 11, 2015.
“This does not bring to an end the investigation. We are continuing this investigation,” Henry emphasized. “I can say with confidence, we will continue to see other charges being proffered against the individuals that we have in our custody, as well as other persons we are seeking after.”
Since then Iftekhar Shams of Bonne Terre, Gros Islet (one of the four previously charged with Human Trafficking) has been slapped with the additional charge of money laundering. The four men are presently remanded at the Bordelais Correctional Facility.
To date there has been no related statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nor the Ministry of Education that reportedly accredited Lambirds Academy. No one knows for sure what due diligence went into Lambirds being accredited by The Ministry of Education as well as a trade license by the Government to operate.