THE EDITOR: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
This quotation comes from the sonnet The New Colossus penned in 1883 by Emma Lazarus and has been immortalised at the base of the Statute of Liberty in New York.
Undoubtedly, Lazarus’ appeal to a common humanity is an underlying theme of the decision of the TT Government to offer a six-month stay to residents of Dominica in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria.
The visceral responses which this decision has provoked betray an unfortunate lack of awareness of the full panoply of rights contained in the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, particularly the right to free movement under Article 45.
This right was further concretised in the 2007 Heads of Government decision which granted to all Caricom nationals an automatic six-month stay upon arrival in any member State.
The right of free movement was the central focus of the seminal decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in Shanique Myrie v Barbados where Myrie, a Jamaican national, successfully sued Barbados after she was denied entry by immigration officials, subjected to a body cavity search and detained overnight in unsanitary conditions.
In Myrie the CCJ not only granted judicial imprimatur to the right of automatic, hassle-free, six-month entry but also detailed the narrow exceptions thereto; such as where a person will become a charge on public funds or a threat to public morals, public safety or public health.
The Myrie principles on free movement were later affirmed by the CCJ in Maurice Tomlinson v Belize and Trinidad and Tobago.
It stands to reason that someone who has lost all their material possessions in a hurricane and seeks to enter TT will be hard-pressed to show that they are not likely to become a charge on public funds. Presumably, therefore, all the Government has done is to adopt a relaxed approach to the application of that exception for Dominican residents now seeking to enter our country.
The exception does not appear to have been removed entirely as the Government’s offer was expressed as being open to Dominicans who have family, friends or acquaintances in TT. This qualification is seemingly geared at ensuring that someone will undertake to provide for them during their stay, thereby preventing them from becoming a burden on the State. In the absence of any specific indication that the second exception expressed in Myrie has been removed or relaxed, one is left to assume that it remains intact.
The public consternation caused by the Government’s decision also calls our value system into question. As all Caribbean people can attest, anywhere you travel in the world you are guaranteed lodging in the home of some friend or family.
Hospitality is as Caribbean as sun, sea and sand. Furthermore, for a people for whom religion is part and parcel of our everyday existence, we seem to have a convenient faith. Surely, the Christian virtues of love and charity, the Hindu tenets of dharma, dana and karma, and the Muslim principle of zakat call upon us to assist our Dominican neighbours in their time of need.
Religion aside, we also seem to have forgotten that, except for
the First Peoples, we have all come to these shores because of some displacement, involuntary or otherwise. The naysayers to the Government’s plan would do well to remember that “today it’s me, tomorrow it might be you.”
It seems that the winds of change ushered by the 2017 hurricane season can serve not only as a stark reminder of our peculiar vulnerability to climate change but also as a catalyst for a regional conversation about immigration.
In this debate, it is beyond question that the right of hassle-free entry and an automatic six-month stay for all Caricom nationals entering a member State is a fundamental principle of community law.
Come what may, we would do well to remember the rights we all enjoy as Caricom nationals, hurricane or no hurricane, promise or no promise.
RIA MOHAMMED-DAVIDSON, attorney