The Cabinet invited the Commissioner of Police, the Chief of Defence Staff of the ABDF, the Director of the ONDCP (Organization of National Drug Control Policy and Money Laundering), the Chief Immigration Officer and support staff, and the Superintendent of His Majesty’s Prison for a briefing on the subject of the unlawful and tragic attempt to smuggle a group of West Africans out of the state and into another Caribbean country.
It was agreed by all that since the West Africans entered the country on their own volition as tourists, were processed by Immigration Authorities upon landing, and were not seeking to evade law enforcement, then they were not “trafficked migrants”, as some have wrongfully claimed. In fact, over the three-month period of the migrants’ stay, attempts were made to integrate these hapless West Africans into the Antigua and Barbuda social fabric. The invitation to the UNHCR and the IOM by the Government are clear signals of the willingness on the administration’s part to seek an amicable settlement of the issue.
Furthermore, for more than five years, the CARICOM had agreed to attempt the establishment of an air bridge between Africa and the Caribbean. An agreement with Air Peace was close to completion except for the AOC (Air Operator’s Certificate) which was not issued, compelling Air Peace to fly first to Jamaica last year, rather than to Antigua.
The Cabinet agreed that when the migrants undertook to depart Antigua secretly, and boarded a vessel after making a payment allegedly to someone connected to the vessel, they were participants in migrant smuggling, transforming themselves from economic migrants. Several of the West African migrants reported that there was expressed hostility towards them by angry people who signaled that they wished them to leave their country. This hostility, the Cabinet agreed, was not the custom in Antigua whose immigrant population is significant in size.
During the period of campaigning, leading up to the January 2023 general elections, the migrants learned that they had been wrongly accused of being impostor voters, and other objectionable accusations had been hurled at them.
The officials invited to Cabinet provided additional information regarding the vessel and its sinking.
The vessel is registered in Guadeloupe; it was captained to Antigua by a sailor who is now assisting the Police in the investigation. Another person captained the vessel from Antigua until it sank; that person is now held by the Royal Police Force of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. The French Coast Guard, out of Guadeloupe, have remained in the area of the ocean where the vessel sank. The likelihood that passengers went under in the capsized vessel would mean that bodies would float up to the surface after 48 hours. Sixteen persons are presumed dead since they are missing. Attempts are being made to identify the cadavers taken to St. Kitts, by way of photos to other members of the group of migrants. The investigation continues.