Non-belongers who have lived here continuously for 15 years will soon be able to apply for residency and belongership under a new policy that eases the previous 20-year requirement to start the process.
They also will have until May 31 to apply for what Premier Andrew Fahie on Tuesday called a “fast-track programme…that will restore the dignity of hundreds and establish a foundation for empowerment and unity.”
The two-week application period for that programme, which is designed to help address the large backlog of applications and process new ones, begins Monday.
Applicants will still have to present the same documents required previously, which include reference letters, a birth certificate, police records, a bank statement, and others.
But those who have already submitted applications, paid their fees, and are still waiting — several years, in some cases — will not need to resubmit their documents.
“This process provides a clear path to regularisation: in some cases residency and in others belonger status, and in most cases residency straight to belonger status,” he said.
Those who already have residency will pay $810 to start the process to become a belonger, while those seeking both residency and belonger status will pay $1,500.
According to the Immigration Department website, the
belonger application fee was formerly $125.
Mr. Fahie said the increase was a necessary move to speed up the process and pay temporary workers in the Immigration Department.
“This administration has decided to deal with this matter straight up,” he said, adding than an amendment to the Immigration and Passport Act is scheduled to be made soon.
“That law which we will be making the amendment to will allow for this initiative to come into being.”
He did not specifically state what change would be made.
Mr. Fahie acknowledged that he would probably be criticised for the move, but justified his decision by noting that the programme’s beneficiaries are not suddenly arriving to “take over” the territory, but are already here.
“The hundreds of people who are likely to apply under this programme are people we all know too well,” he said. “They are our neighbours and our church members; they already work alongside us.”
In his view, the move will also strengthen national security.
“People with more opportunities, who do not have doors being closed in their faces, are less likely to turn to illegal activities just to get by, to survive or to move ahead,” he said.
He also called the move morally just, economically sound and “in keeping with our constitution.”
A ‘great injustice’
According to the Department of Immigration website, an applicant for permanent residence previously had to live in the VI for 20 consecutive years before submitting an application. They could apply for belongership a year after that.
During the press conference on Tuesday, Vincent Wheatley, the minister of natural resources, labour and immigration, recalled previous attempts to deal with the question of residency and belongership.
“In 2004 the same thing was done,” he said, referring to when the newly elected National Democratic Party government set the 20-year requirement for those who applied for status before Jan. 1, 2002.
In 2005, 92 applicants received residence and belonger certificates, and the government announced that thereafter it would grant residency to no more than 25 people per year, though that limit has not been consistently applied since then.
For decades, some residency applicants have faced extraordinarily long delays in the decision process. In 2010, the late Elton Georges, who was then complaints commissioner, called for a formal apology to one applicant who was forced to wait 30 years to obtain residency in what Mr. Georges called a “great injustice.”
At the time, the Complaints Commission recommended that applicants who have lived in the territory more than 20 years who are denied residency be given reasons for the denial and the chance to argue their case before the Im- migration Board. He also urged that the entire application process be reviewed.
“We’re right back here 15 years later with the same problem,” Mr. Wheatley said Tuesday. “Part of my mandate as the minister for immigration is to address this issue.”
In the coming days, information sessions are scheduled to be held on Tortola and each of the sister islands, where applicants can receive forms to begin the process. More information will soon appear on the premier’s “Special Projects” Facebook page and through a special help desk number coming soon.
Although the two-week window is short, Mr. Fahie assured residents that it wouldn’t be their last chance to apply.
“After this is finished it goes back to the regular process and a new process that will be put in place,” he said, adding that he expected the 15-year residency requirement to remain permanent. Asked how long applicants can expect to wait for a decision, the premier said he was already planning a formal ceremony for June, claiming that previous backlogs will no longer be a problem.
“I told them to let me know and we’re going to bring the manpower in,” he said.
Mr. Wheatley stressed the importance of giving foreign-born residents a greater stake in their adopted homeland.
“They don’t own land, they don’t own a house, they don’t have status,” he said. “They say, ‘It’s not my problem.’ This initiative is about … making people who have lived here all their lives feel a part of the BVI.”