Belongership meeting
Hundreds of potential applicants gathered at the Multi-purpose Sports Complex earlier this year to learn about the new “fast-track” programme for residency and belongership. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

Kudos to the new government for tackling the touchy issue of permanent residency and belongership. The overall plan to ease the requirements for both statuses seems reasonable and fair.

However, the “fast-track” initiative announced this month, which so far appears disorganised and poorly planned, will need to translate into comprehensive reform designed to ensure that the application process is fair, transparent and well administered over the long term.

In the past, the process has fallen far short of that standard. In 2011, then-Complaints Commissioner Elton Georges reported that the process for obtaining permanent residency — a prerequisite to belongership — often had been inconsistent and unjust, with some eligible applicants waiting for decades with no adequate response from government. This is no way to treat community members who have contributed to this territory for so long.

Even after that report, the previous government never announced plans for comprehensive change. Clearly, then, substantive reform is needed.

This month Premier Andrew Fahie announced plans to make residency and belongership available to people who have lived here for 15 consecutive years instead of 20 and 21 years, respectively. This change seems fair to us, especially given that the wait time in most other countries is far below even the new requirement.

But Mr. Fahie also announced that under the “fast-track” programme applicants have until May 31 to apply. Overnight, hundreds, if not thousands, of people were newly eligible. Not surprisingly, crowds descended on the police and immigration departments hoping to obtain the necessary documentation before the deadline.

We can only imagine that this overload will get worse as they begin submitting their applications, and we fear that the authorities will struggle to adequately screen so many candidates.

To avoid overwhelming the system, it would have made more sense first to clear the backlog of previous applicants and then lower the 20-plus-year requirements in, say, six months or a year from now.

That said, our main concern is not the number of years that confers eligibility. Our main concern is that the application process be fair, transparent and efficient.

Unlike in the past, an eligible resident should know exactly what to expect. Applications should be handled quickly and fairly in accordance with the law, with no political or other interference, and the public should be kept apprised of who is reviewing them and under what criteria.

Responses should be provided to applicants within a set timeframe of no more than six months, and any denial should be explained thoroughly and clearly.

The “fast-track” initiative is a start, but real success will require reforming the application system from the ground up. We hope that the new government will follow through.