By Sir Ronald Sanders
Imagine the scene if people with little hope of a better life in Caribbean countries could walk to the United States. Undoubtedly, many would do so, joining the tens of thousands in the present so-called Caravan from three countries in Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Television, cinema and other media have for decades painted a portrait of the United States as a land of plenty where fairness, justice and the rule of law prevail, and where the poor, however uneducated and unskilled, have a better chance to improve their lives than they have in their native lands.
If that portrayal was ever true, it certainly is not so now. And, to be clear, the unwelcomeness of unskilled and uneducated immigrants did not start with the present US administration of President Donald Trump. The famous legend at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”, has long been abandoned.
Recall the turning back of shiploads of Haitians risking their lives in perilous journeys across the sea to US shores in the 1980s. It was President Jimmy Carter’s Democratic administration in 1980 that introduced detention camps for Haitians – a tool that Republican President Ronald Reagan embraced fully when he came to office in 1981. President Bill Clinton also maintained the system, trying at one point to convince other Caribbean countries to absorb thousands of the Haitians detainees held in the US. After 9/11, the detention regime expanded under President George W Bush, and it continued until it has reached the present point of political controversy in the US.
The controversy is not over the desire to curb immigration; it is over how it is done. All parties in the US want the issue tackled. That includes the former administration of President Barack Obama which also detained immigrants and deported illegal ones and those that committed crimes.
The point should be made that the US has no policy to stop immigration. The country has one of the most liberal legal immigration schemes in the world through which skilled and trained persons from every continent have gained access to the US. But, it wishes to stop illegal and uncontrolled immigration, mostly by unskilled people who would increase unemployment, enlarge impoverished areas and add to the national welfare bill. In this overall desire, the US is no different from any other country.
The Caribbean region has experienced – and resisted – migration from countries such as Guyana, Jamaica, Dominica and St Vincent to others like Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda which, at one point, were more economically prosperous. Haitians have also migrated illegally to the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas where the reception of them was no better than in the US. And, if Haitians could walk to the US, as can the people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, they would be amongst the huddled masses on the US southern border.
What causes this migration from the three Central American countries and Haiti? Some of the factors are now normal. They include high unemployment, limited economic opportunities, inadequate education and training, high crime, poverty, corruption, violence and downright bad governance. But, now, there is a new factor, one that will become a more important determinant in the future – Climate Change.
Thirteen independent Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries are differentiated from the three Central American countries and Haiti by three things: a continuing commitment to democracy and the rule of law, including freedom of expression; investment in education and training up to the tertiary level; and lower levels of poverty and crime. These elements allow for continuing investment, both local and foreign, in their economies; keeping poverty levels relatively low; maintaining a steady level of employment; and political stability.
If these CARICOM countries depart from their democratic values, including the rule of law and political freedoms, the effect on good governance will choke-out investment and collapse their economies, driving up unemployment and poverty. In turn, economic refugees will emerge, and they too will find their way to the borders of richer nearby countries such as the US and Canada. Fortunately, there is no sign of such a departure in CARICOM states where people participation in political life remains organised, vibrant and accepted.
However, climate change could well prove to be the common factor that could create refugees for CARICOM countries and Central America in the future. The Global Climate Change conferences in France and Poland talked much but delivered little. The worst aspect of both these conferences was the acceptance that Climate Change, with its attendant global warming and sea-level rise, is a fact of life now and in the future. The pledging of money to build resilience and mitigate disasters is, of itself, a glaring admission that, instead of stopping climate change, the abuser countries are delaying the total extinction that it will wreak by giving abused countries money here and there to manage increasingly fatal destruction.
Rising temperatures, more extreme weather events and increasingly unpredictable patterns — like rain not falling when it should or pouring when it shouldn’t — have disrupted agricultural cycles, severely affecting farming communities. This is evident in Central America, and the World Bank reported last year that climate change could create 1.4 million refugees as people flee their homes in Mexico and Central America and migrate during the next three decades.
In the Caribbean, in 2017, all the residents of Barbuda became the first climate refugees – people who had to abandon their island which was decimated by Hurricane Irma. Hundreds of Dominicans also had to seek refuge in Barbados and Antigua. As global warming increases to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, coastal areas of Caribbean countries will gradually be severely eroded, adversely affecting tourism and marine industries, including fisheries. The first impact will be unemployment and increased poverty. The affected people will have no option but migration, and, to survive, they too will join the caravan of refugees – however they can.
That is why, Caribbean governments and all stakeholders in Caribbean islands and countries with low-lying coastal areas, such as Guyana and Belize, must rail in every global forum against the clear and present danger of Climate Change.
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)