At a time when illegal migration is on the rise across the region, we are growing increasingly concerned by the Virgin Islands government’s spectacular failure to properly address the issue on these shores.
Over the past year, officials have reported that at least 14 migrants have escaped from the temporary immigration detention centre at the Hotel Castle Maria in McNamara. Other escapes have been reported by media outlets citing anonymous sources, but officials have not responded to the Beacon’s questions about them.
It is bad enough that migrants are being detained in hotel rooms. But the fact that they are absconding on a regular basis — potentially to the point where government has stopped reporting all the escapes to the public — beggars belief.
To be fair, the territory has been hit hard recently with an unusually large influx of migrants, many of whom are doubtlessly spurred by escalating economic and political hardships in countries including Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela.
Since the start of the year, law enforcers have reported detaining at least 94 of them. That is more than double the numbers reported in many previous years (though government has not provided comprehensive historical data in response to Beacon requests).
However, these challenges don’t absolve the government from its responsibility to properly process immigration detainees. Often, after all, they are fleeing extreme danger or political persecution in the hope of creating a better life for themselves and their families.
Many likely meet the United Nations’ definition of a refugee: “Persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalised violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.”
When migrants arrive in the VI, the territory has a responsibility to efficiently process any asylum request they make and to treat them in accordance with international standards. Besides meeting their basic needs, of course, this includes housing them securely and humanely.
In the late 2000s, the territory built an immigration detention centre for this purpose beside the prison in Balsam Ghut. But within a couple years, female and youth inmates were being held there to accommodate prison overflow — thus forcing immigration detainees once again to be housed in inadequate temporary facilities.
In the Standing Finance Committee deliberations late last year, then-Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said a new detention centre is urgently needed. More recently, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley promised that his government plans to build one.
This is the right move, but in the absence of sufficient funding it is unlikely to come anytime soon. Currently, the government is extremely short on cash, and stalled hurricane recovery projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars seem likely to get priority if any money does come available.
The government, then, must devise and publish a realistic plan for housing immigration detainees in the meantime. The strategy should include adequate safeguards for protecting the rights and safety of migrants and the VI community alike.
A faltering global economy and soaring inflation mean the migration crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better. Currently, the territory is exceedingly ill prepared.