The government is right to use caution when reopening the borders during the pandemic, but we are glad that leaders have finally announced a plan to allow the return of expatriate residents stranded abroad.

In recent weeks, we had been growing increasingly distressed by their extended delay in doing so — and in their related lack of communication on the topic.

The clumsy handling of the situation has hurt businesses, families, property owners and workers who in some cases have lived here for decades.

On March 22, government shut the borders with only hours of notice, banning re-entry for everyone except a few narrow categories like boat crew, diplomats and the like.

Many Virgin Islanders and work-permit holders were caught by surprise and stuck overseas.

We understand the reasoning behind the quick closure — which doubtlessly has helped slow the spread of Covid-19 in the Virgin Islands — but it also may have violated the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of movement. Troublingly, the decision was not accompanied by any sort of long-term plan for reopening.

When the borders did begin to reopen in early June, the government gave preference to Virgin Islanders, belongers and permanent residents. This approach seemed reasonable: We agree that nationals, some of whom don’t have citizenship elsewhere, should get priority.

Though leaders provided no timeline for other returnees, many work-permit holders and work-permit-exempt residents assumed that they would be next.

But until this month no information was released on the subject, and frustration grew as expatriate workers and their employers struggled to plan around a lack of information.

Then early this month, the government announced in a peculiar statement that permit holders and permit-exempt residents would not be allowed to return “at this time.” Once again, no plan or timeline was provided for the way forward.

Premier Andrew Fahie defended the decision with explanations that seemed calculated more to stoke disunity than to actually provide information. He complained, for instance, that some expatriates had balked at paying their own re-entry costs, and he noted that many Virgin Islanders who graduated recently are seeking work.

But permit holders, like Virgin Islanders, are taxpayers, and it is unfair to deprive them of the same taxpayer-funded services provided to other returnees who have re-entered free of charge. Moreover, banning expatriates’ return now will not solve the employment crisis or make up for the government’s longstanding failure to properly enforce labour laws requiring employers to give preference to Virgin Islanders and belongers.

Such arguments were made widely in response to the premier’s announcement, and on Aug. 14 the government reversed course, announcing a plan to allow expatriates to return starting Sept. 1 — albeit by paying their own way as of Oct. 1. We were glad for this announcement, though disheartened about the high fees.

Moving forward, we hope that all returnees can be processed as efficiently as possible without compromising the territory’s safety.

Currently, expatriates stuck abroad include people who are separated from their spouses and children; people who have lived here for decades and invested heavily in the territory; highly skilled workers who are essential to the proper functioning of VI businesses and cannot easily be replaced; and renters who still must pay for accommodations that house only their belongings.

Besides the personal cost, the health of the business sector is at stake, as is the territory’s reputation.

It is disappointing that the government took five months after the border closure to put forward a strategy that allows everyone — including expatriate workers and their employers — to plan accordingly. But we are glad that it is here now.

As a next step, the government should also provide a roadmap for the reopening of tourism.

Leaders are to be commended for apparently keeping the Covid-19 rate very low so far, and we understand that continued caution is a must. But nothing precludes them from working with the community to discuss and publicise more information about their plans for the future.

In this case, silence is not golden.

 

This editorial has been updated from the version published in the Beacon’s Aug. 13, 2020 print edition in order to reflect the government’s Aug. 14 announcement that expatriates would be permitted to return starting Sept. 1.


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