Thursday, December 4, 2008

‘Ever so welcome, wait for a call’

In the Diaspora

Stabroek News. December 1, 2008 @ 5:03 am In Daily, Features | 4 Comments
‘Ever so welcome, wait for a call’

(This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

By Arif Bulkan

Arif Bulkan is an attorney-at-law and lecturer in the Faculty of Law of the University of the West Indies in Barbados

For those who might have missed it, that was the message Prime Minister of Barbados David Thompson had for aspiring Guyanese immigrants to his island. And even though it was brutally frank, to his credit the PM had the honesty (some might say the temerity even) to deliver it in Guyana itself. At the annual awards ceremony of the Guyana Manufacturers Association, where he was an invited guest, Thompson acknowledged his own Guyanese roots and paid the usual lip service to the myth of regional integration, but there was no sugar coating his ultimate message: “Would-be Guyanese immigrants, don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
That such candour could be brazenly displayed before a Guyanese audience was not an indication of how far Barbadians have come from their legendary politeness. It was, more than anything else, a reflection of the growing xenophobia inescapably present in public discourse on the subject of immigration here in Barbados. Just recently, Barbados’ Ambassador to Caricom Denis Kellman addressed UN officials in New York in the same vein, bemoaning increasing immigrant numbers as a “headache” for Barbadians.
When pressed, officials point to the pressures of an increasing population upon limited resources, which span the spectrum from jobs and scarce land to social services like health care and education. Spiralling unemployment (the latest figures from the Barbadian Central Bank put this at 8.6%), congested roads and declining standards in some sectors have all been blamed at one time or another on the influx of immigrants. A recent news report revealed contamination in the ground water supply, attributing this to the unhygienic habits of squatters in certain districts. The same report clarified painstakingly that those squatters were all illegal immigrants, and though the origin of the immigrants was not specified, it is no secret that the honour belongs to Guyanese.
But while some mask their objections with talk of contaminated water and diminishing jobs, at another level the debates take an uglier turn. It is not unusual to hear, even on radio talk shows, references to Guyanese being unwelcome because of our “alien culture” and practices of worshiping “idols” and “false Gods.” Jandhi flags, a commonplace sight across much of Guyana, are a particular sore point here – a flapping reminder of interlopers in their midst. All the talk of alien culture, of course, is code for the racial insecurity felt by a homogeneous population for increasing numbers of East Indian immigrants.
Probe beneath the surface, however, and the arguments (as distinct from the visceral prejudices) make no sense. Ambassador Kellman predicted that because the Barbadian population has exceeded its optimum level, continuing immigration will be harmful for immigrants themselves. If so, one would expect the market to regulate itself, but what evidence there is actually indicates the contrary. My few Barbadian acquaintances all speak highly of Guyanese labourers, and it is clear that Guyanese continue to be hired, particularly in key sectors such as the construction industry, agriculture, nursing, teaching and domestic labour, because of our skills and reputed work ethic. A national survey conducted this year by sociology students at the University of the West Indies concluded that Barbadians are “lazy and licorish” – and though one may recoil at such stereotypes, the point is that immigration is linked to the unabated demand for certain services. No doubt this is because locals are unable or unwilling to do certain types of jobs, in which case it is supremely hypocritical to criticize immigrants as taking jobs away from Barbadians.
This, of course, is the heart of the matter. If unwanted immigration was such a national problem, then there would presumably be lawful avenues for dealing with it. Employers could conceivably be monitored to ensure that their employees are documented and that labour laws are not flouted. But one cannot ignore the possibility that the exploitation of illegal immigrants by underpaying them is overlooked not only because they are foreigners, but also because the practice results in lower production costs to the benefit of some in the society. Ultimately, there exists a degree of irrationality in the debates on immigration, even the arguments propounded by those of the ilk of Ambassador Kellman. Squatters do not drive cars, so illegal immigrants cannot be the source of both urban congestion and rural environmental disaster. If jobs did not exist then immigrants would not be flocking to these shores – beautiful though they are. And if the PM and his government really viewed illegal immigration as an economic threat, they would implement corrective policies instead of merely complaining about it.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in all this is that Guyanese have to suffer this hostility in silence. The few whom I’ve asked about their decision to come and remain here all cite the same reason – the economic benefits to be had and the unparalleled security of Barbadian society. Crime, though present, does not exist in all of the horrific manifestations to which we are subject on a daily basis in Guyana. One friend of mine reduced it starkly to the fact that as a senior loans officer in Guyana he was forever “scrunting,” whereas here, after only a few years in an equivalent position, he was able to buy a new car and build a house in a residential and peaceful neighbourhood.
Are such goals forever out of reach for the average Guyanese in Guyana? Since Guyana is blessed with abundant land that could well underpin a policy aimed at staunching the population hemorrhage. In this regard, Guyanese leaders would do well to emulate the progressive social welfare policies that exist in Barbados, where in spite of alleged rising unemployment and a tiny, almost non-existent agricultural sector, there is no starvation, and little poverty or landlessness. Part of the reason for that is the free availability of excellent social services combined with a truly democratic approach to land and home ownership. Near where I live a land redistribution project two decades ago was undertaken to benefit lower income Barbadians, even though the location was the site of the choicest real estate in the country – on a ridge with a stunning view of the west coast and only minutes away from the city centre. I am not advocating anything remotely similar for Guyana, where in any case comparable land (think Pradoville) would be priced out of the reach of the average Guyanese. However, a good start would be to regularize the myriad squatting areas that exist along the length and breadth of the country. If salaries of teachers and nurses cannot be increased, then at least measures can be formulated to cushion the impact of the high cost of living and VAT.
It was reported in the Barbadian press that at the same GMA awards ceremony where Thompson uninvited Guyanese, President Jagdeo replied that he “could appreciate the challenges Barbados faced with the number of Guyanese” travelling there to work. This was an astonishing response, because one would have hoped that our President could empathise – not with Barbados’ perceived problems – but more with the challenges his own people face that force them to live like refugees outside of Guyana.

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