THE chairman of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), Prime Minister Tillman Thomas of Grenada, feels that the time has come for all member governments to extend their commitment to free intra-regional movement of Caricom nationals to engagement with their immigration services for adopting new approaches that could arrest the widening complaints of aggrieved nationals on arrival at ports of entry.
The Grenadian leader may well have identified a core problem that haunts the free intra-regional movement of Caricom nationals — the need to review the functions of immigration services, re-educate the officers how and why they should be pleasant rather than sour, or worse, hostile, and avoid as much as possible ruining a central objective of our community — uniting its diverse peoples.
Prime Minister Thomas' expressed concern came in a telephone interview with this correspondent against the backdrop of intense efforts by the governments of Barbados and Jamaica to resolve a bitter dispute relating to allegations by a 22-year-old Jamaican woman (Shanique Myrie) of having been finger-raped by Barbadian immigration officials on her first-time arrival at Grantley Adams International Airport on March 14.
The Grenadian prime minister said that it had become the norm for renewed calls to be made by government and trade union officials as well as the regional media for adherence to arrangements that facilitate hassle-free intra-regional movement by nationals of the community.
However, he stressed that unless new initiatives were pursued by all governments of Caricom to reorient their immigration services to be civil and positive in their attitudes in dealing, without prejudice, with all nationals arriving at their ports of entry, the "situation could well get worse before getting better".
His call for fair and non-discriminatory treatment of Caricom nationals arriving in member states cause me to recall the admirable stand taken by Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham of The Bahamas in May 2009 when he publicly castigated Bahamian immigration officers for their "offensive behaviour" towards Jamaicans arriving in that community partner state.
Ingraham had denounced what he identified as the frequent "insolent and rude behaviour" by Bahamian immigration officials on the prejudiced assumption that the Jamaicans were all bent on engaging in illegal activities and, therefore, did not deserve the welcome mat.
Subsequently, Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo was to publicly criticise the frequent harassment of Guyanese in some Caricom countries, with Barbados being particularly involved.
Ironically, while the Jamaicans and Guyanese may well have fared the worse in unfair treatment meted out to Caricom nationals arriving at some airports -- including the Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago -- they are two of the member states reputed to have in place the most satisfactory arrangements to facilitate community nationals visiting for holiday or business and seeking employment.
Prime Minister Thomas, in speaking as Caricom chairman, confirmed that the problems being faced by community nationals on arrival at some airports in the region, either on holiday or business, was one of the lingering issues of general concern that surfaced at last February's half-yearly meeting of community leaders in St George's.
More bad news
The prime minister of Jamaica, Bruce Golding, speaking earlier from Kingston on the "Myrie case", was reported as saying that it was part of a growing list of complaints made by Jamaicans against "maltreatment by Barbadian officials" on arrival in the country.
Prime Minister Thomas said that he was "hoping that good sense will prevail in current bilateral talks between Jamaica and Barbados to find a just settlement, as urgently as possible, in the interest of all concerned so that we can get on with the task of removing the hurdles that block the progress we need as governments and people of one community".
At the time of my speaking with the Caricom chairman, the foreign ministers of Jamaica and Barbados were expected to make some progress in their efforts to defuse the conflict over what has become the burning "Myrie affair" during the two-day meeting of the CARIFORUM Council of Ministers that was scheduled to conclude on Friday evening.
But, as if to add fuel to the fire, the Jamaica Observer, which first broke the news of Myrie's reported nightmare cavity search by Barbados Immigration, published a story in its Thursday edition headlined "Barbadians tighten the screws — more Jamaicans beaten, locked up, kicked out'.
The article was accompanied by a group photo of the three Jamaicans who made the allegations -- Andre Davis, Jemaine Blake, and Chevine Edwards.
There is no doubt that by the time this column is read there would have been a response from the Barbadian authorities refuting the trio's allegations. And as the problems over hassle-free movement and respectful treatment at ports of entry in Caricom worsen, it becomes all the more urgent for our community leaders to meet and come forward with practical responses.
Truth is, contrary to the falsehood being encouraged about the citizens of any one Caricom state being "exceptional" within our community, we are all the same, in many ways, with laudable qualities and distressing weaknesses.
That's why free intra-regional movement by nationals of the region should not be treated as a grudging 'concession' on the part of ANY Caribbean Community country that is a signatory to the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas.
The treaty provides the legal basis for the Caricom Single Market and Economy, consistent with the letter and spirit of membership of a "Community of sovereign states".
That is irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, social class or religion. Therefore, those who, on the contrary, so often misuse the media to spread propaganda and prejudices are contributing to the kind of human degradation so bitterly and openly complained about by the Jamaican national, Shanique Myrie.