Critics of Prime Minister Gaston Browne say he appears to be playing the victim following the exposure of a reported migrant-smuggling ring through which more than a dozen West Africans perished or were lost at sea last Tuesday, March 28.
In a press conference held last Thursday, Information Minister Melford Nicholas declared categorically that the Browne Administration accepts no responsibility for the tragedy.
On the weekend, Browne personally confirmed this position, asking, “What that has to do with me? I don’t know these people; I never met them.”
The prime says he was very unhappy when he learned about the misfortune, because he felt it was another occasion on which the migrant West Africans had abused his administration’s benevolence.
Browne says his government had gone the extra mile to allow the “visitors” to work and had promised to assimilate them into the domestic society without discrimination.
Still, even after having that olive branch extended to them, an aggrieved Browne says, a number of the West Africans sought to be smuggled into another country, primarily the US Virgin Islands.
The prime minister says he felt disappointed that the visitors would, again, abuse this country’s goodwill.
At one point, Browne admits, he contemplated rounding up the more than 600 West Africans who have been residing here for over four months, placing them on charter flights, and removing them from the country.
However, after some reflection he says, he opted not to do so, but to continue treating them like human beings, instead.
Over 900 West Africans arrived here – mainly from Cameroon and Nigeria – on board a charter organized by the now-defunct Antigua Airways and what the Browne Administration claims were three “copycat” flights.
Many of these travelers have said they were promised that Antigua would be only a transshipment point to get to the United States.
Accordingly – since Antigua Airways has been stopped from operating here, the West Africans have been seeking other ways to get to their ultimate destination.
Browne says it is “unfortunate” that some of them preferred to try reaching the United States – which resulted in possibly 17 of the 30 fleeing West Africans losing their lives during the ill-fated trip last week.
He says he hopes the others who remain here will not seek to do “anything as stupid as that again, and understand that we have accepted you as residents in this country… .”
While the Africans will be permitted to live and work here, Browne adds, the Government’s offer to fund their return trip to Cameroon still stands.
He insists that his administration is not trying to keep them here against their will – contrary to some of their claims that their attempts to leave the country by air are being denied.
Browne is calling on the West African visitors to be honest about the Government. He says it is inappropriate that they should benefit from the country’s hospitality while trying to ridicule his administration through such claims – simply because they wish to get to the United States and apply for refugee status.
Further, he says, the West Africans – whom he last described as “opportunistic migrants” – should understand that the consequences of smuggling are real and significant – and they should desist from such behaviour.
In the wake of the tragedy and the international attention it has attracted, many people are saying that Browne should resign, since the incident has brought shame on the country.