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Thursday 14 December 2017
Commentary

Opening our doors

It is both heartening and a relief to hear our Prime Minister propose that Trinidad and Tobago waive immigration restrictions for citizens of devastated Dominica. The plight of refugees all over the world mirrors historical exoduses and reminds us of the diasporas from which our own nation was built. It also suggests that the displaced are “unhomely” in a truly postmodern sense.

The word “unhomely” has both literary and philosophical dimensions. It does not simply mean to be without a home, but it also means to have a sense of the repetition of events. It further signifies that the borders between the private and the public have broken down. This has become a fact of our present reality.

In effect the private lives of both host and guest will converge. If citizens of our warm nation are to be encouraged to take in refugees, then it is up to those in charge to ensure that there is no abuse, and that we recognise that hospitality is a privilege, and not simply a gift. Hospitality in this instance means putting a child, or a vulnerable individual, into the care of another. That “other” cannot simply be left up to chance.

Historically, taking in those in need has often led to abuse. Children have been turned into house slaves and women into sex slaves. I do not mean to throw cold water on the generous words of our Prime Minister, but I have grown cynical over many years of seeing and hearing those who profess to be open-handed use this for self-aggrandisement or self-interest.

A response to this tragedy cannot be left simply to the open-handedness of citizens. It must be monitored. Already the sense is that those coming here are being done a favour and we set the limits and vet them. But we who offer this gift must also be put under scrutiny.

There is no “I dare say” about children who come here from Dominica attending school. A structure must be put in place for their education. Minister of Education Anthony Garcia notes a precedent to this when Grenada was all but destroyed in 2004, but the hesitation in the words of Dr Keith Rowley still brings with it a sense of déjà vu or that idea that small islanders are beneficiaries of our largesse. So there will be a limited six-month period when Dominicans will find shelter. Some children will attend school; presumably others may not. One does not give with one hand and take with the other.

The help offered by Prime Minister David Granger of Guyana seems forward thinking and indeed ideal. Guyana’s offer of land to rehouse displaced victims of the hurricane could be beneficial to the host country as well as the incoming occupant.

But there has been a fear voiced abroad that the beautiful island of Barbuda, in particular, could be taken over by unscrupulous investors who see this as an opportunity to turn this island into a tourist resort. This too must be avoided.

Barbuda is unique in the matter of land. The Barbuda Land Act of 2007 “holds all land on Barbuda in common for Barbudans and their descendants, wherever they may live in the world. It means in practice that today anyone of Barbudan descent can take up to three areas of land on Barbuda to build themselves a house, for agriculture or for business, according to the land regulations which have areas designated by the Barbuda Council — without having to pay anything for it. This right to use the land and to self-determination for Barbudans has been established since the end of slavery when the Barbudan slaves refused to be moved off Barbuda to Antigua.” http://www.barbudaful.net/natural-barbuda/issues/the-land-issue.html

We need a secure, welcoming and creative way of dealing with the matter of people unhoused by natural disasters. What we do not need is a repetition of Haiti where aid became, in the words of filmmaker Raoul Peck, “fatal assistance.”

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