The World Bank estimates that as many Saint Lucians live and work in the United States as do in the land that gave us birth. Other sources not necessarily as well informed claim at least half the number are in the U.S. illegally.
Canada finally was left little choice after years of abuses but to slap visa requirements on the thousands of us who annually visited relatives in Toronto with no return plans. As for the UK, our once upon a time Mother Country continues to provide for thousands of us, whether we came to them as pretend vacationers then decided we preferred the cold and damp better than the sunshine of “simply beautiful” Saint Lucia.
Our own half-English prime minister, when he addressed the 16th biennial convention of the Union of Saint Lucians living overseas, estimated that the UK is home to at least 40,000 of our people. Imagine the consequences, then, if the above-named countries should abruptly decide no longer to tolerate our sometimes troublesome presence.
You’d imagine in our circumstances (no need to mention our convenient slave history!) that we’d be a tad less intolerant of strangers. Alas the evidence speaks loudly against us. We resent with frightening passion the presence among us of brethren from our sister states. Openly we spew racist epithets at anyone whose skin is a shade lighter than ours, whether they are here to assist us at our government’s invitation, and despite our endless reliance on the generosity of strangers.
As if further to expose the crap at our core, we persistently blame on others the horrors of the bottomless pit we dug for ourselves despite dire warnings from the hands that once fed our ungrateful mouths. Another favorite target for our venom: those who find themselves, often through no fault of their own, drowning with us in the bog that is a consequence of our suicidal indolence, our gold-painted incompetence, our enduring belief in voodoo, and yes, our propensity for leaving to others what we know we should be doing for ourselves.
Lately we’ve taken to blaming God—for our retaliating rivers after years of being choked by our filth; for the predictable consequences of our hypocrisy; for the prices we pay for doing unto others what they never dreamed of doing to us!
Several weeks ago a new target crash-landed on the Rock of Sages: some 70 young people from various parts of India, the Philippines and Nepal. Long had they dreamed of making their way to the States, still considered “God’s country” even by those who believe not in the existence of God. The young people had never known one another until their first chance encounter in the transit lounge of a German airport where they discovered they were all booked on the same airliner, en route to the same destination.
They discovered, too, they had all enrolled at the same school: Lambirds Academy, located at “Dauphin Street, Gross Islet [sic], Saint Lucia, North America.” There they would undertake various studies for one to two years, before transferring to “Lambirds USA” where awaited their dream life. In the interim, their local hosts had promised them in writing temporary jobs and internships.
The visitors had no trouble whatsoever entering Saint Lucia via Hewanorra Airport. Their papers were scrutinized and evidently declared in order. Their visas were appropriately stamped, just as their hosts had promised they would be. No one questioned how the students planned to support themselves during their stay. Presumably, the immigration officials were satisfied with all they read in the several letters signed by representatives of Lambirds Academy.
What followed once the students had been chauffeured from the airport was a nightmare, revealed in last weekend’s STAR—a nauseating account of official incompetence at the highest levels. The academy’s CEO and four or five accomplices now face several charges including human trafficking, fraud and money laundering. It has been announced by the government that an official investigation is underway, led by the commerce minister—besides that being conducted by the police on a much wider scale and with the reluctant cooperation of involved government agencies.
Remarkably, it was on the commerce ministry’s recommendation that the president and CEO of Lambirds Academy, a Bangladesh native named Iffekhar Shams, was issued documents that had facilitated his presence in Saint Lucia last April, first as a participant in a government-sponsored investors forum, and later as the resident brains behind Lambirds Academy and as a restaurateur.
Lambirds was recently declared illegal and shut down by the same agency that had given its owners the green light several months earlier: the ministry of labour and education, headed by math whiz Robert Lewis. It has also emerged that Shams did not have a teacher’s permit. This week the police reportedly laid several more charges against Shams and his associates.
Reliable sources tell me the British, French and American authorities have also taken an interest in the case.
Last Saturday the broke, frustrated and desperate young students were visited at the Bois d’Orange Pastoral Center by the Home Affairs permanent secretary, a government lawyer and a representative of the International Organization for Migration. By all accounts, their main purpose was to persuade the stranded students to sign a document headed: “Declaration of Voluntariness.”
The Geneva-based IOM is an inter-governmental organization. It was initially established in 1951 as the Inter-governmental Committee for European Migration “to help resettle people displaced by World War ll.” As of December 2013 the IOM comprised 155 member states and 11 observer states.
The organization advertises itself as “dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all.” It does so “by providing services and advice to governments and migrants.”
The declaration form that the unrepresented victims of alleged human trafficking were invited to sign on Saturday (and not for the first time) contained no headquarters address, no reference sources, no phone numbers, only the following: “I the undersigned understand that the IOM program will assist me to return home . . . I confirm I wish to remain in my home country after my return . . . In the event of personal injury or death during and/or participation in the IOM program, neither the IOM nor any other participating agency or government can in any way be held liable or responsible.”
None of the visitors cared to address the provisions of the Counter-Trafficking Act, among them: “The minister in conjunction with other relevant ministries shall develop a plan in consultation with non-governmental organizations and other representatives of civil society, for the provision of appropriate services . . . for victims of trafficking.”
The act also provides for “appropriate housing, taking into account the person’s status as a victim of crime, and including safe conditions for sleeping, food and personal hygiene; psychological counseling; medical and legal assistance.”
Moreover: “Victims of trafficking may be eligible to work and to receive proof of work authorization.”
This week two of the students who had been promised temporary employment by empathetic citizens were denied letters of authorization by the labour department. Meanwhile they have split into three groups, two housed at different addresses in Gros Islet, the other at the Bois d’Orange Pastoral Center.
We are reliably informed that the food and other essentials afforded the Center’s students continue to be supplied by generous Saint Lucians, not by the government as the Home Affairs PS adamantly claimed last Saturday.
On Wednesday, some of the students at Gros Islet were directed by phone to find new accommodation by the following day, or risk eviction. The manager of the establishment that has housed them for several weeks free of charge denied making the call but was unable to say whether it came from a representative of the establishment’s off-island owner.
The panicked students, none older than 25, have received no direct word from the authorities about their immediate future, despite the requirements of the Counter-Trafficking Act. Some of the young women, at least two with peculiarly female problems, have been receiving medical assistance, paid for by concerned citizens who wish not to be identified.
The growing suspicion is that the authorities are bent on making life in Saint Lucia intolerable for the students, despite that they are victims of human traffickers that until recently were facilitated at every turn by the government; despite that their testimony will be required when finally the government’s human-trafficking and other charges come before the court.
No surprise that the opposition party remains as tight-lipped on the Lambirds Academy controversy as it’s been on several other pressing matters of public interest—the Grynberg case and IMPACS among them.
On Monday evening lawyers for Dr. Shams told Choice-TV reporters their client’s rights were being violated: he was not in good health and therefore should not be held at Bordelais where appropriate healthcare services are not available. The issue of bail has so far not been mentioned.
On the other hand the students remain without legal representation. And while some of us with dye in our eyes may seek to blame them for their present predicament, they are receiving increasing support from several local quarters, albeit anonymously. Maybe we’re not so bad after all. Perhaps I’ve been misled by what appears increasingly to be just another case of empty vessels doing what they do best!