By Michael Jarvis
In a situation that bears close, if not necessarily striking resemblance to the United Kingdom’s Windrush immigration crisis, the British Virgin Islands, a UK Overseas Territory, has found itself in the midst of an almost similar imbroglio.
New premier Andrew Fahie, less than three months into his tenure, has had to shelve plans to ‘regularise’ the status of non-nationals who have been living and working in the territory, some for well over 10 years, a key qualifying period for ‘belongership status’.
Premier Fahie, who took office in March, had embarked on the ‘regularising’ the immigration status of hundreds of foreigners as one of his main election campaign promises.
But Fahie, who claims there are assassination threats against him - though not said to be related to his immigration policies - has had to abruptly halt his plans in the face of a mounting outcry.
There have been citizens’ demonstrations on claims that the process he is putting in place is unlawful.
Even within his own legal circles, concerns had been raised that what he was pursuing was more of an amnesty which carried additional legal uncertainties.
At issue is the British Virgin Islands’ strict Belongership criteria.
On the government’s website, it’s stated that a person becomes eligible for Belongership status after an initial residency period of ten years.
“Applicant must be of good character. Must not be less than eighteen years of age. Has been ordinarily resident in the territory for a period of not less than ten years immediately prior to his application. Has held a Certificate of permanent residence for at least one year immediately preceding the date of his application. Has in his/her application, restated your intentions of making the territory your permanent home and has satisfied the board if Immigration that it is your intention to do so.”
Regularising the status of hundreds of non-nationals who were existing in a state of immigration limbo was a key campaign pledge of Premier Fahie’s Virgin Islands Party(VIP).
It would also enable those persons to vote.
BVI law stipulates that a person must have acquired ‘belonger status’ as a requirement for voter registration.
But earlier this month when it set the ‘regularising process’ in motion, the government immediately ran into a storm of criticism and opposition led by local pressure groups.
The plan called for having a registration period from May 13th to May 31st for eligible non-nationals, following which their applications will be processed with a decision expected by July this year.
But protests erupted, the Premier’s office was even picketed.
Other sentiments expressed a fear that the expected sudden addition of potentially large numbers of persons to the Voters Register could tip the political balance and have other ripple implications across the population.
The BVI population is a little over 31,000.
The voters register in February’s election was 15,038 with a turnout of 9,720 or 65%.
The proposed addition to the Voters Register was expected to considerably increase the voter base, among other things.
But, in launching his government’s ‘regularisation plan’ for non-belongers on May 7th , Premier Fahie sought to allay concerns about the assumed implications.
He brushed aside concerns that “we’re going to increase our population by 10,000 people or 15,000 people overnight.”
“The quick answer is no,” he declared, adding that, “most of the folks who are going to be regularised, they’re here already.”
He had also set out to reassure existing citizens of the territory that “those indigenous that would be feeling disenfranchised, it is not, it is really adding value.”
But the pressure was unrelenting.
It was also feared that the move by the government, which was already going through the motions in the BVI parliament under the broad title of “A Clear Path to Regularization Residency and Belonger Status”, might have been at risk of violating the territory’s constitution.
Questions were also raised over whether the law, once passed, would be ‘assented’ by the territory's British Governor/Queen’s Representative.
In the end, much to the satisfaction of campaigners, the government backed down.
During a sitting meeting of the territory’s Legislative Assembly this past Friday when the bill was expected to be passed into law, it was summarily withdrawn by Premier Fahie for further public consultations.
“I realized that we want more public dialogue on this matter and we are willing Mr. Speaker, based on the voice of the people, and sitting with the people for and against, to make sure that we hear the people a little more," Premier Fahie declared to the legislature and people of the British Virgin Islands.
This development comes just days after the British government rejected a recommendation from the UK’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee(FAC) for automatic voting and electoral rights for all British citizens in the Overseas Territories.
The FAC had also criticised Belongership status as discriminatory.
But the British government sided with the OTs using that system by stating: “We understand the (territories’) concerns, sensitivities and historical background on this issue.”
“We will continue to support and encourage consistent and open political engagement on Belongership and its territory-specific equivalents, whilst respecting the fact that Immigration decisions are primarily a matter for OT governments,” it added.