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Antigua gov’t says West Africans were not “trafficked migrants”

March 31, 2023
Photo: CMC

CMC – The Antigua and Barbuda government says the West African nationals, who are among persons missing and feared dead when a 30 foot vessel sank off the coast of St. Kitts earlier this week “were not “trafficked migrants”, as some have wrongfully claimed.

“In fact, over the three-month period of the migrants’ stay, attempts were made to integrate these hapless West Africans into the Antigua and Barbuda social fabric. The invitation to the UNHCR and the IOM (International Organization for Migration) by the Government are clear signals of the willingness on the administration’s part to seek an amicable settlement of the issue,” according to a statement issued following the weekly Cabinet meeting.

The statement noted that Cabinet had met with senior law enforcement agency officials including the Commissioner of Police “for a briefing on the subject of the unlawful and tragic attempt to smuggle a group of West Africans out of the state and into another Caribbean country.

“It was agreed by all that since the West Africans entered the country on their own volition as tourists, were processed by Immigration Authorities upon landing, and were not seeking to evade law enforcement,” the statement added.

Chief Immigration Officer, Katrina Yearwood, told a news conference on Thursday that approximately 200 West Africans have left here legally since late January, with an estimated 400 still on the island.

Hopes of finding more survivors from Tuesday’s boating tragedy has dwindled significantly even as family members urged the authorities in Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts-Nevis to immediately release the names of those who survived so as give them closure.

The Antigua and Barbuda government has said it would launch a “full investigation” into the circumstances that led to the sinking of the 30 foot vessel, 40 miles northwest of Antigua and 12 nautical miles south of Conaree in St Kitts, with several local and African nationals on board.

The Chief of Defence Staff of the Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force (ABDF), Colonel Telbert Benjamin, said the “vessel went down in relatively deep water, and so recovery … might be a bit of a challenge”.

Three people have been confirmed dead and 15 others rescured on Tuesday and the Cabinet statement said 16 people “are presumed dead since they are missing” adding “attempts are being made to identify the cadavers taken to St. Kitts, by way of photos to other members of the group of migrants”.

The statement noted that for more than five years, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) had agreed to attempt the establishment of an air bridge between Africa and the Caribbean.

It said an agreement with Air Peace was close to completion except for the AOC (Air Operator’s Certificate) which was not issued, compelling Air Peace to fly first to Jamaica last year, rather than to Antigua.

“The Cabinet agreed that when the migrants undertook to depart Antigua secretly, and boarded a vessel after making a payment allegedly to someone connected to the vessel, they were participants in migrant smuggling, transforming themselves from economic migrants. “Several of the West African migrants reported that there was expressed hostility towards them by angry people who signaled that they wished them to leave their country. This hostility, the Cabinet agreed, was not the custom in Antigua whose immigrant population is significant in size.

“During the period of campaigning, leading up to the January 2023 general elections, the migrants learned that they had been wrongly accused of being impostor voters, and other objectionable accusations had been hurled at them,” the statement added..

According to the statement, the vessel involved in the tragic incident is registered in the French island of Guadeloupe and “was captained to Antigua by a sailor who is now assisting the police in the investigation.

“Another person captained the vessel from Antigua until it sank; that person is now held by the Royal Police Force of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. The French Coast Guard, out of Guadeloupe, have remained in the area of the ocean where the vessel sank,” the statement added.

Meanwhile, the main opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) has accused the government of seeking to wash its hands of the matter.

In a statement, the UPP criticised the government for seeking to “distance itself” from what has happened to the migrants whom it said had repeatedly claimed that Antigua and Barbuda was not their final destination, but were stranded here because of the government’s blunder.

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