Did our leaders fail us on Visa issue?

Did both our leaders fail us?

Two years ago Amanda Noel, 29 who arrived in Canada in 2005, and her daughter Makyla, were deported back to St Lucia after the child was found by police with her father in some woods near his home. The father had allegedly refused to return the child after a visit and police were called. The mother had applied for refugee status, was turned down but awarded custody of the two-year-old by an Ontario Court.

This was one of several cases involving claims of refugee status by Saint Lucian citizens in Canada, which made not just local news, but the news in Canada and North America as well. Added to that, over the years there were a number of gripping headlines involving Saint Lucians arrested for drug trafficking and violent crimes in Toronto which has a very high West Indian population. And so, when it comes to the hot topic this week, that of the visa requirements imposed by the Canadian government on nationals of Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and some African nations on Tuesday did it really come as a surprise as those in authority are claiming? Or did those in authority who could have done something to avert the problem simply bury their heads in the sand? Who exactly knew the situation?Former Prime Minister Stephenson King, the current PM Dr Kenny Anthony, the former Minister of Home Affairs Guy Mayers or the current Ministers of Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Philip LaCorbiniere and Alva Baptiste? Who knew? Whatever the answer one way or the other we must deal with the Canadian issue as it obviously has far reaching implications.

So far the visa imposition has affected at least one West Jet flight which left here Thursday for Toronto. More than fifty percent of the potential passengers were Saint Lucians of which at least 70 percent were unable to travel on that flight due to the visa requirement. If the trend continues, no doubt, the airline would consider cutting down on their twice weekly flights into the island.

That aside, this week it was all about the blame game, as to who knew and who did not know what the other knew about that the visa imposition. There were claims by the Saint Lucian Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony who was sworn into office last November that he had no prior knowledge of the “sudden” visa requirement and counter claims by the Opposition Leader Stephenson King that Dr Anthony had to have known. For King’s part, he admitted that he was aware that there were problems.

On Friday, when contacted Alexcis Pavlich of the Canadian Immigration department said that “the government of Saint Lucia was notified prior to the announcement that Saint Lucians would require visas to travel to Canada.” According to the official this after months of attempts at getting the government to reduce on the number of nationals making asylum claims to Canada. The problem, it was acknowledged, had gotten worse in the last five years with more than 2,000 Saint Lucians applying for refugee status over that period—a number deemed “unacceptably high” by Canadian authorities.

From as far back as 2003, Dr Anthony had spoken out on the problems the Canadian authorities were facing with citizens of Saint Lucia and other Caribbean nationals, even stating that it would be addressed at the OECS and CARICOM levels. Said Anthony back then, “citizens of Saint Lucia and the OECS applying for refugee status in Canada on the grounds that they are being persecuted and victimized is reprehensible.”

He went on to state that the Canadian immigration department had reported an alarming number of refugee claims made by Caribbean nationals since 1999. There is however nothing on record to show what actions was taken on Dr Kenny Anthony’s part at the national level or at the regional level to address the problem.

Then in 2011 in an interview with the STAR then Saint Lucia’s Consul to Canada had this to say on the matter: “ . . . one of the issues we are faced with is that immigration authorities here (Canada) do not readily share information with us about our nationals. Most times persons arrive here on a flight from Saint Lucia, apply for refugee status and the process begins without our knowledge,” Julien said.

The former consul went on to inform us that during a meeting in December 2010 immigration concerns were discussed with Reg Williams, Director of Immigration Enforcement. “I also expressed interest in a new ‘act’ —the balance refugee reform act—which when implemented would pose great difficulties for OECS nationals seeking refugee status,” Julien warned then.

According to the then Consul General, the reform would weigh in favour of persons seeking political asylum and refugee status from places like the Middle East. Julien also said then that he had arranged a meeting in March of 2011 with Saint Lucian law enforcement, immigration and national security authorities and their counterparts in Toronto, Canada.

Acknowledging that meeting with the STAR on Friday this week, former Minister of National Security Guy Mayers promised to sift through the minutes of that meeting before giving us an “informed account.”

“What I can recall is that we discussed issues with regard to what we were doing in terms of national security and crime,” Mayers says. “At no time during my tenure am I aware that the government was written to officially about the problems that we were facing in Canada or an impending visa restriction,” he added. He said if precedence is anything to go by, in the case of England when they threatened visa requirements for Saint Lucians, “we were given the opportunity to discuss and regularize the situation.” “So I find it strange that the Canadian authorities would do something like this based on what I am hearing without first alerting local authorities,” Mayers told us. This week Ross Cadasse, vice president of the council of Caribbean association in Toronto also expressed surprise at the move during a telephone conversation. “We knew there were problems but we were of the view that the realigning of the refugee status act which would have made it more difficult for persons seeking refugee status from the Caribbean to be granted protection, would have been a better option,” Cadasse says. “In that way legitimate persons from the Caribbean, who are coming to visit relatives, for a holiday and so on, could still have had access to Canada,” he added. In an official statement the association said that they were aware that the Conservative government had concerns about refugee claims from St Lucia and St. Vincent.

“This decision has created an issue that could potentially jeopardize the Canada entry status for these islands as it did in the case of Dominica and Grenada. This is particularly troubling to us as an organization as it puts further financial hardship on persons from the Caribbean wishing to travel to Canada, who must now go to Trinidad, plus pay a fee, to obtain a visitor visa,” the statement said. “As an organization, we would have liked to see more dialogue on the issue with the Caribbean countries impacted prior to implementation, however, this sends a very clear message to persons of Caribbean descent, especially from the OECS countries here, that we need to get significantly more involved in the political process, if we are to impact change that affects us,” it ended by saying. The new visa requirements, which came into effect on Wednesday September 12, 2012 are designed, according to Canadian authorities, to help significantly reduce the risk that individuals engaged in organized crime or the trafficking of persons could gain entry to Canada. For Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent in particular a key reason for the visa imposition is said to be unreliable travel documents with criminals from these countries legally changing their names and acquiring new passports. Ironically Saint Lucia’s new machine readable passports were facilitated by the Canadian company CBN which still maintains the facility. Still with all the questions and blame game there is no official joint statement from the Prime Minister, the Minister of National Security and the Minister of Foreign Affairs as to how Saint Lucia intends to proceed on this matter.

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