The Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday informed the media that 38 Cubans reported intercepted by American authorities were not carrying Saint Lucian visas as had been reported here and elsewhere. Still a number of questions remained unanswered .The Associated Press first broke the story on May 15 that the US Coast Guard had intercepted a boatload of Cuban migrants and were waiting for the Cuban authorities to authorize their return home.
“The would-be immigrants had tourist visas to the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia,” according to the AP report quoting U.S. officials, “when they were intercepted by the Coast Guard. The migrants were found near the Virgin Islands in late April.”
At Thursday’s press conference the permanent secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs, Hubert Emmanuel, said that as soon as the story broke local officials had contacted Cuban officials as well as the US Embassy for clarification. “The Ministry found this very strange,” the PS said, “since Cubans do not require visas to come here. So we requested information on the said Cubans because we wanted to ensure there was no hoax, especially at this time when we are hearing about so much illegal migration.”
According to Emmanuel, the US Embassy “confirmed the boat was coming from Saint Lucia but they had no information the Cubans were carrying Saint Lucian visas.”
Emmanuel added: “What we have, and what was sent to us by the Americans were the ID numbers of the Cubans and their dates of birth. So now we can try to verify with the assistance of immigration whether these persons did in fact enter Saint Lucia by legal means.”
In other words, the matter is under investigation—as are so many other matters relating to Saint Lucia’s national security.
Emmanuel expressed concern with what is happening right now “in the wake of the Lambirds Affair, that Saint Lucia is being used as a port for illegal migration. We as a country want to safeguard the good name of Saint Lucia and so we have had several meetings with the Immigration Department and other agencies of relevance in terms of trying to get to the bottom of this.”
Emmanuel said his Ministry, with other agencies, was seeking to ascertain if the Cuban migrants were really here, and by what means they got out. “They did not leave through any legal ports. Here in Saint Lucia, we are not capable of manning all our coastlines. It is totally impossible, and so we have to work with other agencies and other countries to stem the flow of illegal migration.” He added the problem was a major topic at a recent CARICOM meeting of foreign ministers.
Moreover: “In a much broader sense we need to look at our visa regime. As it stands now, the Ministry of External Affairs issues visas to persons who require visas to come to Saint Lucia. There are also provisions made for the Immigration Department to issue visas to persons . . . there is accommodation made for persons coming to meetings and they will get their visa on arrival, but even that we have to look at critically and review.”
This reporter wondered why the ministry official was so certain the Cubans had not left Saint Lucia via a legal port. His response: “Normally, if you go through any legal port, you must have a passenger declaration or list . . .”
I interjected: “But one can leave a legal port by illegal means as in the case of stowaways.”
Emmanuel: “I cannot say they did not use legal ports. But whatever they did may have been done illegally. I cannot see a yacht coming into Port Castries carrying 38 passengers and all of them going through without passing through security. There is a certain amount of control.”
Obviously, that “certain amount” had, on more than one recent occasion, proved inadequate. The reporter invited the PS to explain how the present visa regime operates. “The way it works,” he said, “if a visitor wants to come here, whether it be for school, vacation or business and they require a visa, they would first approach one of our embassies nearest them or apply online. In some instances, for example if they are coming from Asia via London and their flight arrangements allow them to visit our Consulate there, they can do that. If it doesn’t, then the Consulate will contact the Immigration Department here after making sure that the application is in order. A visa is then issued on arrival. In some cases people approach immigration directly but this is one grey area that we are now trying to correct. We believe that it should be one agency to issue visas.”
Meanwhile the Ministry of External Affairs says it has passed on the information received from the US Embassy to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Immigration Department for further investigation.
Despite the “grey areas” and areas unknown, Emmanuel assured the media on Thursday that the government was determined to implement its Economic Citizenship programme—a programme frowned on by the US government whose relationship with Saint Lucia at this time leaves much to be desired.