ONE thing Heads of Government of our 15-member Caribbean Community should studiously avoid is sending mixed signals to their immigration and customs services when it comes to implementation of the letter and spirit of the recent historic judgement by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in the case involving the Jamaican Shanique Myrie and the Barbados Government.
Surprisingly, this appears to be the initial error of judgement made last week by the prime minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, who has earned a reputation for offering careful public statements on matters of national, regional and international interest.
For their part, both the prime ministers of Jamaica (Portia Simpson Miller) and Trinidad and Tobago (Kamla Persad-Bissessar) seem to be missing in action when it comes to offering any meaningful response on the CCJ's judgement.
Perhaps they are mindful — as they ought to be — that while, respectively, heading the first two independent nations among Caricom states, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago remain voluntarily trapped in Britain's colonial yoke with the Privy Council still functioning in London as their final appeal court. This is even as they pay their dues to maintain the CCJ and market its value in the development of a West Indian jurisprudence. What a sad scenario in 2013!
However, it is to the prime minister of Barbados to whom we must return. He is heading a second-term Government and holds lead portfolio responsibility among the Heads of Government for the community's flagship project, the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME).
Barbados happens to be the leading beneficiary of intra-regional non-oil trade and functional co-operation within Caricom and, therefore, has an obligation to Barbados to be mindful of sending mixed signals in its interpretation and application of the landmark judgement of the CCJ in relation to the right of Caricom citizens to unhindered access at regional ports of entry, including its own.
Prime Minister Stuart
Yet, in last Monday's Daily Nation, Prime Minister Stuart was voicing his "concerns" about hassle-free movement within Caricom at a public meeting. In particular, the provision for "automatic" six-month stay for community nationals visiting Barbados that could be misused to "attract the unemployed and criminals..." from other community states.
While urging Barbadians to respect the CCJ's ruling, since Barbados was not "any banana, plantain or fig republic" but a country "governed by the rule of law", he also chose to send a message to immigration and customs officers.
The message? They are not to interpret the court's reference to 'hassle-free' travel "so loosely that people can walk through the airport without anybody asking them anything for fear of being sued..."
The harsh reality is that, to put it mildly, in his anxiety to prevent Barbados from being overrun by the "unemployed and criminal elements" from other Caricom jurisdictions, Prime Minister Stuart may well have unintentionally been more focused on protecting the system as it currently operates at ports of entry in Barbados.
Rather than placing due regard to the CCJ's emphasis on the need for immigration and customs officials to pay heed to the court's ruling, the prime minister may have (unintentionally?) conveyed the impression that immigration and customs officials need to be more rigorous in their duties.
The reality is that on closer inspection, there seems to be a misnomer to speak of an "automatic right" for a community national to be facilitated a six-month stay on arrival in a Caricom state.
For starters, the visitor making this request has to establish proof of being able to sustain himself/herself for such a period without being a burden to the state. Secondly, evidence must be advanced by the immigration/customs authorities to substantiate any claim that the visitor could be a threat to national security.
Therein lies the rub, and where the historic ruling by the CCJ offers useful guidance for immigration and customs authorities.
These authorities simply have to move away from a virtual institutionalised habit of bias in dealing with Caricom visitors and revert to a culture of civility, competence and fairness for which the region's immigration and customs services had acquired a proud reputation in years past.
Indeed, it would be interesting to have some precise data to substantiate expedient official claims of the six-month stay facility being abused to the social/economic disadvantage and hurt to any of the 15 member countries of Caricom.
When immigration and customs officers are misled into the interpretation of the CCJ's ruling in reference to "hassle-free" intra-regional travel, it could well send a conflicting signal to what's really desired and consistent with the letter and spirit of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas governing the operations of Caricom.
Readers need to remember that in its ruling the CCJ has explained that the right of "definite entry" by a Caricom national "is part of the broader concept of free movement that entails the right to unrestricted access to, and movement within the jurisdiction of member states".
This columnist, therefore, thinks that all governments of the community have an obligation to sensitise their respective jurisdictions to the landmark judgement by the CCJ.
They should have arrangements in place to ensure a climate of civility and friendliness, instead of unfriendliness, worse, hostility that make a mockery of the concept of intra-regional freedom of movement as enshrined in the Revised Caricom Treaty.
Significantly, following the troubling remarks at his public meeting, Prime Minister Stuart was by Wednesday engaged at a briefing with immigration officers on matters pertaining to the ruling by the CCJ.
Whatever the outcome, it is to be hoped that positive features will be replacing undesirable ones for visitors to Barbados.
For their part, various countries of the Organisation of the Eastern Caribbean States, among them St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, and Dominica, have already begun the process of critically reviewing the status quo for facilitating 'hassle-free' travel arrangements for citizens of Caricom.