gall and gumption

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Lucky and the Less Lucky

You may recall last May I blogged a story about a boat that was found adrift off the coast of Barbados with 11 dead Senegalese aboard. They had died on board after their engine failed and drifted all the way across the Atlantic. One of them wrote a letter. His body was sent back to Senegal. In the meantime none of the others have been identified. But the government of Barbados has done a beautiful thing.

After attempting to determine the men's identities using DNA sampling, the governments of Barbados and Senegal agreed to have the men buried here, said Cheryl Corbin, director of the Forensic Sciences Centre.

"The government of Barbados is very respectful of humanity and it did not make a difference where they would have come from," she said. "We were not going to bury them in a mass grave."

The remains of the 11th man were returned to Senegal two weeks ago, Corbin said. That man had left a farewell note that identified him and said that his family was in Senegal.

Each of the 10 men was buried with a stainless steel identification plate strapped to his body, and the precise location of each grave was recorded in case it's necessary to exhume them as part of the investigation of their identity.

Meanwhile in the course of work today I came across this press release from the U.S. Coast Guard. A merchant ship rescued 14 Senegalese sailors from a 60-foot catamaran 800 miles off Cape Cod. Well, who sails from Senegal to Cape Cod in the winter (against the prevailing wind, by the way) in an 60-foot catamaran? What a fearsome thing it must have been for them to set out in this little boat.

Human smuggling and human trafficking are increasing in the Caribbean. Before 9/11 some Caribbean countries (Grenada and Dominica) had arrangements whereby any citizen of those countries qualified for residency in Canada. These countries are poor, and like a couple other Eastern Caribbean countries they sell residency and citizenship. So there was a sort of trade in immigrants, many of them from China, who would buy citizenship for as long as it took to be able to move on to Canada. Well that ended after the terror attacks for obvious reasons. You can still buy citizenship there, and there is a whole new small wave of Chinese people in the region. But not all of those who arrive can buy citizenship or even particularly want it: they are in transit. They, like the Haitians and Dominicans, want to get to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands or to St. Maarten. And every year Dominicans and Haitians die on the seas trying to migrate.

St. Maarten is one of the two big shopping centers in the Eastern Caribbean; the second is Puerto Rico. St. Maarten is a duty-free port so they get all the cruise ship traffic and it's the ideal place for a lot of cruise ship passengers. I mean, you get off the ship right in front of the clean little picturesque downtown strip, Front Street, that is lined solidly from one end to the other with jewelry stores, Dutch souvenir stops (Delft doodads up the yin yang), electronic equipment stores, brand name designer boutiques, T-shirt shops, art galleries, the usual upmarket tourist trap tat with one or two truly fabulous things -- my favorite being the store that sells genuine Panama hats and only genuine Panama hats. All your favorite fast food places are there, so you can waddle off the ship where you've been eating since you embarked in Florida, across the pristine white sand beach, and a block or two away there's a Burger King and how long has it been since you had one of those? The three other streets that are beyond Front Street have more and cheaper shopping, with a big open-air market where you can buy all those tropical things so indispensable in the islands, the sarongs, wrap-around skirts, loud shirts and carvings and cheap knicknacks all, all, all, made in China. And of course restaurants and bars. Lots of those. Outside of Philipsburg on the Dutch side, over the hill, there's a big yachting marina that is the other center for the big private yacht industry (trading, cruising, chartering, having a crew just sort of sail it up and down just waiting for you to tell them where to meet you -- St. Barth's is of course the big one). And there are casinos. Also, the island's duty-free status makes it a shopping hub for people down-island (from other islands) as well. People come from Nevis or Antigua to buy cheap Chinese goods which they will sell in their own stores at home.

St. Maarten is where you go if there's something you can't find on the island you live on -- need a dog crate? Watercolor paper? Camera accessories? If you can't get it in St. Maarten your next stop is San Juan. So the stores there flourish because they serve the tourists, the local, and the regional markets. The Daily Herald is not only the best paper covering the Leeward Islands, it also prints many of its competitors in neighboring islands.

This clever little economy also gets a boost, probably, from being a transshipment point for cocaine (all the big cocaine hauls in the Caribbean and almost all the drug drama outside of Jamaica have occurred in the Netherlands Antilles -- Aruba and Curacao were overrun by Colombians a few years ago). I don't mean that the money laundering is probable; I mean I'm only guessing that it benefits the economy. In some ways it has harmed it, driving Front Street shop rents out of reach of most natives. But with all of that and considering how developed it is St. Maarten is pretty nice. Goods are cheap and plentiful, and people make enough money at their jobs in the hotels and casinos and stores to be able to buy them. It is a very civilized and prosperous place, clean, thriving, tolerant (by Caribbean standards), pleasant, and cosmopolitan. I actually considered moving there from Nevis, before I decided to come back to the States.

It is half French (St. Martin) and half Dutch (Sint Maarten) though to all intents and purposes the Dutch part is now independent. The island is really small. It has a total of about 38 square miles, and you travel perfectly freely between the two jurisdictions, with no currency difficulties -- prices are in euros and US dollars everywhere.

So I suppose it's no surprise that such a prosperous and busy and yet casual place should be a magnet for human smuggling. Do consider the size of the place when you drop in at this blog that covers, among other local matters, human smuggling just in St. Maarten.

The island's Ministry of Justice estimates that 20,000 of the 50,000 island residents are illegal immigrants. That's two out of five. But it's quite possible that without them the economy would not prosper nearly so well. It really helps, for example, in a place that gets a lot of European travelers, to have people in your hotels and casinos and stores who are native speakers of French, Dutch, Spanish, and English, and any educated down-islander will have one of these languages. The immigrants who manage to get into the economy get good wages and can buy things, so they are buyers too. There's still concern, as can be seen from some of the articles on that blog.

You really couldn't hide a half-dozen Haitians in St. Kitts, which is much more sparsely populated for its size, and where everybody knows everybody and foreigners are regarded with -- hmmm I can't think of a nice kind word for it. But in St. Maarten, where a sizeable portion of the population is from all over the Caribbean, it's a lot easier to just sort of blend in. Also, if you speak French Creole or Spanish it will be less conspicuous in St. Maarten where all the Caribbean languages and dialects are heard all over the place.

From St. Maarten it's only a short sail to the U.S.V.I. But the smugglers sometimes don't even bother to take the immigrants that far. Going into US territorial waters puts you at the risk of an unpleasant encounter with the U.S. Coast Guard and why take on that trouble when your passengers have already paid you? So some of them will sort of head out to sea, sail around and around a bit, and drop everybody back in St. Maarten again. This is not the worst of all the things that can befall the people in these boats.

It's good to remember that this traffic goes on all the time; every day, someone is out on the sea trying to get to a better life. You have to be pretty desperate to do it this way, because it's danger and hardship and the possibility of not ending up anywhere near where you were intending to go; you could find yourself in some place where you didn't have a plan or an idea or a vision of what would happen next.

Like those Chinese people who ended up in Dominica in 2003. There is (or was) a pretty steady human smuggling operation that transshipped people through Dominica, and the Dominican authorities just didn't have the resources to deal. These Chinese people, 21 of them, were arrested there. Well, Dominica is a very poor country, and they didn't have the money to send them all home. It was also too expensive to keep them in jail, eating up the national budget. I think they worked out a deal where they could stay in a hotel for a while, but that got too expensive too, so while these folks waited for their relatives back in China to scrape the money together for them to get out of Dominica they just wandered about the place. Truly marooned.

I don't know why I'm thinking about this. I would like to have written these stories. That's about the size of it really.