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'We must stop seeing each other as foreigners'

Caricom secretary general says region needs to deal with free movement of people

BY VERNON DAVIDSON Executive editor — publications davidsonv@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, July 06, 2012    

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The difficulties being experienced by Caricom nationals in moving freely across borders in the region is one of the challenges that Secretary General Irwin LaRocque acknowledges must be resolved if the ideal of integration is to be achieved.

It is also an issue that will significantly influence public response to LaRocque's drive to reform the regional bloc in order to make it more relevant to the needs of citizens, particularly the youth.

"There's a phobia, and I think we have to stop seeing each other as foreigners," LaRocque declared during a discussion last Friday with newspaper editors at the Jamaican foreign ministry in Kingston.

Admitting that the sense of regionalism that existed in the 1960s among the people of the Caribbean had waned significantly, LaRocque said, "The construct we have has probably lost sight of the people of the region... the people have changed."

Speaking directly to complaints by Caricom nationals of border control harassment, LaRocque said: "If we don't address this issue we're going to have a problem, and it's not just how you treat people when they go across the border, or the fact that you have the hassle makes you feel like a non-belonger, it's a reality and we have to address this issue. It's a political issue in and of itself, you know. It's one of attitude, it's almost a phobia. I don't know why we're afraid of ourselves."

According to LaRocque, immigration laws in the region inhibit rather than encourage movement.

"We have to tackle the attitudes at the borders," he insisted. "Our immigration officers wield a lot of authority and discretion and it's going to take a lot to change that mindset."

But that, he argued, must be pushed by the region's governments who need to recognise that the movement of people is vital to Caricom's survival.

"There is a view, particularly among the youth, that Caricom is too much about business and businessmen and women," he said. "All they hear about is trade and not enough about people. I hear that when I go on the ground among the youth, who are the future of this region. So to some extent we need to be aware of that as well."

With that in mind, LaRocque said he will give a lot of focus to communication and will utilise social media in order to get the attention of young people in the region.

"What the youth have said to me is: all the fancy brochures that you have prepared, they don't read them; they have no time to read them. The [Caricom] website is a curiosity they might go on once in a blue moon. They've been very frank and critical in the way we're communicating," said the secretary general.

He said a fear expressed to him by youngsters in one Eastern Caribbean state is that of losing jobs to nationals from other countries. "People want to move, but they're afraid of moving," LaRocque said, but argued that any such movement would balance out because not everybody would move to another country.

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