Friday, April 19, 2024

OUR CARIBBEAN: Solving the free movement issue

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Against the backdrop of the latest so-called war of words between cabinet ministers of the governments of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago earlier this month, a senior official in Jamaica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs found it necessary this past weekend to “advise” Jamaicans to ensure conformity with immigration requirements for travel, including private/holiday visits, or professional employment elsewhere in the Caribbean Community.

It has never ceased to amuse me how representatives of governments of our Caribbean Community – officials and politicians – become active in dealing with elementary issues, such as basic information-sharing, after a problem develops in relation to what continues to be a recurring challenge – hassle-free intra-regional travel for CARICOM citizens and, relatedly, the right to live and work, governed by established conventions.

For all the official rhetoric about “one market, one community, one people”, too often too many CARICOM citizens find themselves being inconvenienced and, worse, treated as unwelcome visitors at ports of entry by those expected to behave with civility and having been sufficiently sensitised to their functions as immigration and customs officers. Regrettably, some end up embarrassing their own professional colleagues by their attitudes.

The region’s established media certainly have an obligation as well to sensitise citizens to their rights and responsibilities in dealing with immigration and customs officials. Warts and all, I think both privately-owned print and electronic enterprises generally seek to respond to this social obligation, though there remains room for improvement.

But government information/communication agencies certainly have a duty to routinely engage in basic information-sharing as part of their functions, particularly in the face of ongoing disputes over freedom of intra-regional travel and, worse, crude mishandling of CARICOM citizens at ports of entry in a community to which all of some five million citizens belong.

There was a period when government information services were recognised as reliable allies of the region’s print and electronic media – irrespective of ownership – in helping to sustain and advance the policies and programmes of CARICOM, even as they appropriately focus also on informing and propagandising on behalf of governments.

Then, of course, ministers of information and communication had public profiles that associated them as functioning, along with their counterparts, to sustain interest in and commitment to specific regional objectives and programmes. The pity is that such interest and commitment have not been sustained under changing governments and leadership and have resulted in fostering the impression of a lack of interest in the provision of timely relevant information on the functioning of CARICOM.

This declining interest in timely information-sharing on policies and programmes pertaining to what remains central to success in attaining the objectives of CARICOM as “one people of one community”, is now a sad contrast for what an earlier generation of visionary leaders were enthusiastic advocates.

Meanwhile, CARICOM citizens rightly keep lamenting the ever-rising cost of imported foods – currently estimated at some US$5 billion annually – and wonder what objective factors are preventing this region from utilising the vast resources of Guyana and Belieze, for example, to help provide thhe foods we need. They feel there is a sad lack of vision and political will at the leadership level.

Perhaps our primary CARICOM decision-makers who head governments, as well as those involved with institutions and agencies serving the laudable objectives of the region’s integration movement, should better focus on encouraging attitudes, policies and programmes to help­­ end frustration and bitterness among citizen­s over persistent hassles and, worse, hostility at some ports of entry.

It seems that there is the necessity to launch a region-wide educational programe on the core features pertaining to freedom of intra-regional travel and the right to live and work under the terms of a ‘Free Movement of Skills Certificate’.

Also apparent is a need for reorientation of immigration and customs officers to better enable them to efficiently and respectfully deal with visitors at ports of entry. Perhaps, in the process, better use could also be made of the network of government information services with an understanding that information and communication about CARICOM is an important aspect of their work on behalf of a Community comprising 15 member states.

• Rickey Singh is a noted Caribbean journalist.

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