Last year, the Commission of Inquiry report recommended a review designed in part to clarify a controversial question in the Virgin Islands: How many years must an expatriate live here before they can obtain belongership based on their length of residence?
Former public officer Kedrick Malone recently completed that review, and his 70-page report includes a wide range of detailed recommendations for comprehensive reforms.
Mr. Malone, for instance, recommended the creation of clear policies to guide immigration, labour and population growth; incentives to bring Virgin Islanders home from abroad; limits on Cabinet’s discretion over belongership; more authority for the Immigration Board; and many other measures.
His report does not, however, provide a definitive answer to the length-of-residence question.
But starting this week, residents will get a chance to provide their own input on such issues at a series of town hall meetings that got underway last night and continued at 6:30 p.m. today at the Elmore Stoutt High School.
Mr. Malone was commissioned to carry out the review pursuant to a recommendation in the COI report, which harshly criticised the current belongership system.
One of the COI’s main criticisms was the longstanding dissonance between law and practice in awarding belongerships based on length of residence.
The 1977 Immigration and Passport Act, the COI noted, allows someone to obtain belongership based on length of residence after they have lived in the territory for 10 years and they have held a certificate of residency for at least a year.
But the COI found that the government had long been using an unlawful policy under which belongership applications were measured against a 20-year residence requirement instead.
“The policy is unpublished and unpublicised: On the evidence, it appears to be a policy which has not been publicly recognised until this COI,” wrote COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom. “It is unlawful. Since 2004, Cabinets of successive [Virgin Islands Party] and [National Democratic Party] administrations have known of this mismatch and have singularly failed to bring the policy in line with the law, either by requiring the Immigration Department and Board to apply the law or bringing forward legislation to change the requirement to one of 20 years.”
Law versus quota
Mr. Malone’s report — which was published when it was tabled in the House of Assembly on Sept. 7 — echoes the COI recommendation that the government should follow its own law and consider belongership applications after 10 years of residence.
However, it also suggests an annual quota of fewer than 200 belongerships a year.
“With 2021 BVI population at 37,408, … the number of applications approved per year should be less than 187, bringing it in line with practices in other small countries,” he wrote.
These two recommendations, however, do not appear to be compatible.
Given the current backlog of more than 2,000 combined applications for residency (at least 1,576 as of last month) and belongership (at least 437), the quota would mean that processing the backlog alone could take more than a decade. This would mean many current applicants would therefore have to live in the territory for much longer than 10 years before receiving belongership — even while new applicants are steadily added to the waiting list.
In a recent interview with the Beacon, Mr. Malone suggested that a separate system may be needed to address the backlog.
“The law currently stipulates ten years, but that has to be regularised given the amount of people who are in the territory, and perhaps a separate process needs to deal with those who are already here,” he said. “The more important thing is application for citizenship doesn’t mean you’ll be accepted. That is universal.”
Mr. Malone added that his report wasn’t “meant to provide all of the answers.”
“It was just a review of what was there,” he said. “The government is going to have public consultations where residents and citizens give their input. … People will have the chance to ask their questions and give their input to try to influence whatever policy government puts forward.”
Those public consultations were scheduled to start yesterday evening at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College after Beacon press time. They are to continue today and in the coming days on Tortola and the sister islands.
A survey is also posted on the government’s website, and input can be submitted in writing as well.
At an HOA meeting last month, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley encouraged residents to take part in the consultations.
“The recommendations of this review have now been presented to us, and I wish to emphasise that this presents us with a unique opportunity to shape the future of our beloved British Virgin Islands in a manner that is firmly grounded in respect for the law and recognition of the privilege granted to individuals who wish to make these beautiful Virgin Islands their home,” Dr. Wheatley said.
He added that Mr. Malone’s review will serve as the basis for proposals and recommendations that will inform any amendments to legislation or policy.
“We understand that these changes must reflect the evolving needs and aspirations of our people and the challenges we face as a society,” the premier said.
‘Table Talk’ updates
Further updates on the planned consultations were provided during a “Government Business Table Talk” programme streamed on Sept. 27 with Chief Immigration Officer Ian Penn; Joseph Smith-Abbott, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sustainable Development; and TCSD Ministry Assistant Secretary Malvern Brathwaite.
“It’s important we establish a clear and comprehensive immigration policy based on sustainable development goals,” Mr. Brathwaite said during the programme. “That will take into consideration our economic needs; the social and cultural impact that immigration and migration will have on the Virgin Islands.”
Other areas of focus will include capacities in schools, roads, and healthcare systems — as well as the legal framework needed for changes, the officials said.
Mr. Smith-Abbott encouraged participation in the consultations and promised a stakeholders’ report in early November and a draft policy shortly thereafter.
“During the months of October and November, we will be looking at producing something that can be further considered,” he added.
Mr. Brathwaite noted that changes to legislation will take a longer timeframe.
Though Mr. Malone’s report does not provide a definitive answer to the length-of-residence question, it does agree with the COI’s criticism of the current system and reiterates the dissonance between the law and the 2004 policy.
“Executive Council did not intend for their  decision to be a long-term solution, as evidenced by the additional points of information issued with their decision,” he wrote. “The absence of an immigration policy to this day has been the most significant cause of the accumulated backlog of applications and the genesis of the concerns expressed in the COI report chapter on residency and belongership.”
This situation, he added, highlights longstanding governance shortcomings.
“The fact that a policy has stood contrary to law for 19 years is one that begs the question: What happened to the checks and balances in the governance system that are supposed to identify and correct such breaches of authority?” he wrote. “There was obviously a failure of institutions to function as intended.”
The issue was further exacerbated when government decided in 2019 to clear a backlog of 1,273 applications through a “fast-track programme” launched by then-Premier Andrew Fahie, according to the report.
While Mr. Malone noted that Cabinet’s intention to clear the backlog of applications was “understandable — even commendable,” he stated that Cabinet exercised its discretion in an arbitrary way that was inconsistent with the framework set out in the law.
The move brought scrutiny and was one of the major causes for the COI recommendation to review the length of residence required for an application, according to Mr. Malone.
“Some of the actions of Cabinet that illustrated abuse of its discretionary powers include: No assessment of applications by the Board of Immigration in executing the fast-track programme; overreliance on personal knowledge of applicants; and less information to grant status, which increased the risk of error,” he wrote.
Establishing a clear and comprehensive immigration policy lies at the heart of reforming the system, Mr. Malone suggested.
“The immigration policy development must include public consultations, consider the views of the people, and engage in public education and awareness campaigns to promote understanding and acceptance of immigration,” he wrote in his report.
Such steps, he added, are needed in large part because of the territory’s rapid growth in recent decades.
According to Mr. Malone, the concerns highlighted by the COI stem from issues that have been evolving since the advent of ministerial governance in 1967.
“Throughout this report, it will become evident that the grant of local governmental autonomy in 1967 was not accompanied by a fit-for-purpose governance system capable of avoiding much of what has been documented in the COI report regarding residence and belongership,” Mr. Malone wrote. “Much of the success the territory has experienced since the advent of ministerial government has been over-reliant on individual initiative and capability, rather than on an effective and efficient governance system.”
Moving forward, he advised, the government should approach belongership awards in a more comprehensive manner that considers workforce needs, the economy, infrastructure, development planning, and many other factors.
“The focus on meeting labour needs has overshadowed the importance of holistic planning and policies that consider the long-term sustainability and well-being of the community,” he stated.
Mr. Malone’s report also calls for amending legislation to require approval from both the Board of Immigration and Cabinet on all belongership applications; a public communication and engagement strategy to improve awareness, transparency, and public participation on immigration matters; and an interim point system to process the existing backlog of applicants.
WANT TO WEIGH IN?
Government is encouraging residents to provide input on the belongership system at a series of town hall meetings that started yesterday on Tortola. Upcoming meetings are listed below. Input can also be provided by taking a survey at bvi.gov.vg or by emailing email@example.com, according to government.
Elmore Stoutt High School tent, 6:30 p.m.
Jost Van Dyke Methodist Church, 11 a.m.
Emile E. Dunlop Community Centre, Anegada, 2 p.m.
West End Community Centre, 6:30 p.m.
Flax Administration Building, 6:30 p.m.