Antigua and St. Kitts are at diplomatic loggerheads over the fate of Cameroon citizens

May 4, 2023


Authorities in Antigua and nearby St. Kitts are at diplomatic loggerheads over the fate of more than a dozen Cameroon citizens who were last month rescued by passing vessels when their vessel capsized off St. Kitts.

The 14 West Africans were part of an Antigua-based group, which boarded a dangerously overcrowded smuggling vessel that should have taken them to the US Virgin Islands from where they would have creatively made their way to mainland America on flights that are treated as domestic, rather than international.

But the plan as to how the rescued bunch would have been treated by Antigua has gone awry as Antigua says it no longer sees the need to have them repatriated back to the island.

Tragedy struck on March 28 when the severely overloaded vessel sank, killing about 15 of them. A total of 14 were rescued by passing vessels, taken to St. Kitts where they remained awaiting repatriation to Antigua as the government there had promised. Only three bodies have been found.

At the weekend, however, Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne announced that he was walking back on the promise to take back the Cameroonians, because he alleged that they sooner rather than later try again to leave the island for so-called greener pastures. His announcement has caused severe anger in St. Kitts where authorities have said that they will still try to persuade PM Browne to change his mind.

“Why bring them back when they are likely to smuggle out of the country again,” he was quoted as saying in a governing party publication. This is even as the 14 are being held in a detention center in St. Kitts. Unhappy and frustrated, five of the group made good their escape at the weekend but four were recaptured and are back in detention, jobless and cashless.

Authorities in Basseterre, the capital, say they will follow international protocols in dealing with groups such as the Cameroonians even while clinging to hope that Antigua will keep its promise.

The 14 are part of a group of about 900 mostly Cameroonians who had traveled to Antigua on the now defunct Antigua Airways flights late last year.

Officials say about 650 have remained but many are trying to leave as they are broke, homesick and anxious to reach their planned final destination — the US. The airline had been billed as the answer to the decades-old prayer of Caribbean governments to establish an air bridge between the region and Africa.

“The government of St. Kitts and Nevis continues to pursue workable and diplomatic solutions as it is duty bound so to do,” said a national security ministry statement.

On landing on the inaugural flight last year, many had indicated that they were anxious to leave Cameroon to escape conflict between parts of the country, which have Anglophone leanings versus those, which are Francophone as Anglos complain of deliberate marginalization by the Francophones, leading to political and ethnic tensions.

Meanwhile, PM Browne said it will make little sense to continue pursuing the dream of a Caribbean-Africa air service as illegal migrants rather than tourists and business persons are dominating the service.

“In essence, Antigua Airways is practically a defunct entity at this point as we are very gun-shy about continuing those charters because of what happened. We ended up with these opportunistic migrants who came into the country,” the prime minister told Antigua Newsroom recently.

In all about 900 West Africans had made the trip via the short-lived service. Officials say more than 600 are still on island, many struggling to make ends meet, homesick and are stranded. Authorities have asked the UN’s refugee office for help in dealing with the migrants. SOURCE: (Caribbean Life)

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