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London posting keeping Assamba busy

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, August 21, 2012    

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LONDON, England — Jamaica's newly appointed High Commissioner to London Aloun N'dombet-Assamba says she has had to hit the ground running in order to address the myriad issues affecting the Jamaican diaspora in the United Kingdom (UK).

Chief among them is helping Jamaicans here acquire birth certificates so they can renew their Jamaican passports.

"There are problems with getting people's passports because there was a time people had birth certificates which were not authentic, and now that the passports are to be renewed they need the correct one," she told the Jamaica Observer.

She cited the example of a woman who came to see her at her law practice in Jamaica, before her appointment as high commissioner. The woman had been stopped at the airport for travelling on a fake passport.

She said the woman had been travelling between Jamaica and the UK for years on a passport which was acquired using a birth certificate she didn't know wasn't hers.

"She had applied for the birth certificate and when she got it with an incorrect name she was told that she needed to have a deed poll done to reflect this new name, and she went ahead and did, genuinely thinking she was doing the right thing," Assamba said.

Given the number of persons who fall into this category, Assamba has since had to establish external clinics as the commission in London is too small to handle the volume of cases.

"One challenge that we have is the physical space for people to come in, because we are operating in a listed building so we cannot do any expansions, and that is a problem," she said.

She added that there is no money to relocate the high commission, hence, the only solution is to have its staff go out to the people. The clinics were a priority as one of the biggest complaints from the diaspora is the slow turnaround time of some agencies in Jamaica.

The high commission operates its consulate section separately from its diplomatic functions, because the former is where the needs are greatest. The consulate office deals with passports, birth certificates and citizenship issues.

As such, that department works closely with Jamaica's Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency, as well as the Administrator General's Department and the Land Agency, among others.

Assamba said maybe Jamaica will have to look at appointing honorary consuls to assist with the workload, as is done in the US and other countries.

Another function of the high commission is to address the concerns of the prison population which, Assamba said, has reduced significantly in the last few years.

"The population is now about one-third of what it was five years ago, and that is because they have been sending home people," she said.

She said previously, the high commission would send one of its officers on regular visits to the prisons, but this has had to be reduced because of the small staff — five, including herself.

"Now we go mainly to ensure that the people who are claiming to be Jamaicans are really Jamaicans, because we have a lot of problems with that," she said.

She said the staff shortage was particularly evident when all the councils took up the offer to have flag-raising ceremonies on August 6 to celebrate Jamaica's 50th anniversary of Independence.

"There were 35 such ceremonies and so we had to ask well-known Jamaicans in the diaspora to represent us at these events," she said.

She, however, lauded the many diasporic societies which, she said, remain very active in the UK. One such, she noted, is the Jamaican Society in Leeds which owns the building from which it operates.

"The diaspora is active with regions and boards, and there is a core group of people, but I have challenged them to get more people involved," she said.

The Diasporic Societies act like lobbyists in some instances, and she has further challenged them to get involved in politics if they are to see quicker results. Already, many are involved in local governance.

"One of the reasons we were able to have so many flag-raising ceremonies is because of the number of Jamaicans we have in these councils," she said.

Assamba also sought to respond to the backlash she received from some Jamaicans for wearing a hat and gloves for her recent introduction to The Queen.

She expressed regret that the significance of the new Jamaican high commissioner getting such an early audience with The Queen was lost because of the furore over her attire.

"Getting such an audience with The Queen has to do with how important Jamaica is seen," she said, adding that while it is customary for new chief diplomats to meet with The Queen, she did not expect her invitation to come just five weeks after taking office, especially during The Queen's Jubilee celebrations and amidst preparation for the Olympics.

She explained further that before she went to meet with The Queen she had a meeting with the Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps who informed her what her mode of dress should be and instructed her on how the meeting would go.

She said the meeting with The Queen occurred around midday during the changing of the guard when thousands of tourists are usually out to witness the spectacular event.

"The car had on the Jamaican flag and when the people saw that, I had to wind down the window so they could see it was not the prime minister or Usain Bolt, because of how they were cheering and waving," she said.

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