The Grenadian government is actively engaged in dialogue with Canada to lift the visa requirement for nationals wishing to visit this country.
But, the Caribbean country’s finance minister, Nazim Burke, has warned that the negotiations could stall if Grenadians continue to falsely file for refugee claims once they get here.
Citing criminality, security and border integrity concerns posed by the controversial economic citizenship program, the federal government enforced visitor visa requirements on Grenada and Dominica eight years ago for selling passports to anyone who could afford to purchase the travel document.
It’s estimated that the Grenada government, under then Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, sold close to 850 passports from 1997 when the program was introduced until Mitchell suspended it shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Burke disclosed that Grenada’s Prime Minister Tillman Thomas and Canada’s PM Stephen Harper discussed the issue during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago earlier this year. He also said high-ranking Grenadian officials have met on several occasions with Canada’s High Commissioner to Barbados Ruth Archibald who provides services to six Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) countries, including Grenada.
“They have presented some conditions they will like to see complied with if favourable consideration is to be given to the reinstatement of the status Grenadians had before the visa imposition,” said Burke, who spent last weekend in Toronto where he resided for several years before returning to Grenada in 2000 to pursue a political career. “This is something which we are working on.
“We know it could be difficult to reverse things, but we believe if the Canadian government is satisfied that we are committed to protecting the integrity of our citizens and borders and ensuring that our country is not used as a staging post for illegal and criminal activities, then that confidence we seek will be restored in time.”
Citizenship and Immigration Canada has expressed concern about the increasing number of Caribbean nationals, particularly those from OECS countries, applying for refugee status. In the past nine years, St. Vincent & the Grenadines has recorded the highest number of claims followed by Grenada and St. Lucia.
“This is a concern for us too and one that has always existed,” said Burke, who also holds the Planning, Economic Development, Energy and Foreign Trade portfolios. “Persons looking for better economic opportunity do so under the cover of seeking refugee status. That is not good because, while you can understand the desire and motivation to find a better life and new opportunities, the harm that’s done to the image and reputation of the country is what is ignored and this is something which I think we can only try to correct over time through continued education and by creating opportunities at home so that people can feel that they can come and visit Canada and ultimately feel a sense that they can successfully live at home to make a contribution to their own country.”
Burke, who taught economics at George Brown College and maintained a successful law practice in Toronto in the 1990s, stopped over in the city on his way home from the International Monetary Fund-World Bank annual meetings in Turkey.
Grenada was among 185 countries represented at the meeting.
“There was a lot of frank discussion and one of the things we noticed is that there is growing sensitivity to the situation facing the smaller underdeveloped economies in particular,” he said.
Grenada, like most developing countries, has been hit hard by the worst economic recession in the last six decades.
Unemployment, which stood at 25.9 per cent when the New Democratic Party (NDP) unseated the New National Party (NNP) in the last general elections in July 2008, is expected to reach 30 per cent by the end of the year and major tourism development projects have been put on hold because of the global economic downturn.
“Because of the slow down in the economy, there has been a significant decline in government revenues,” said Burke. “The government depends on port and customs for 54 per cent of its revenues. With the downturn there has been a fall in imports and the duties that are collected have declined. We have experienced almost 27 per cent decline in earnings from that source.
“That has hindered our ability to finance some of the capital programs we anticipated at the outset of the year. In the wake of this decline, we have had to take a second look at our public sector investment for 2009 and re-arrange our priorities to focus more on the projects that have the capacity for creating employment in the short term.”
With many families feeling the squeeze of the economic crunch, the government reintroduced a duty-free “barrel” initiative whereby each household in Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique is allowed a maximum of two barrels of mainly food products from relatives and friends in the Diaspora. The program runs until December 31, 2009.
Nearly 9,000 families benefitted from last year’s inaugural program, importing approximately 11,000 barrels.
Burke confirmed that he has received some disturbing e-mails recently from overseas sources alleged to be implicated in illegal activities with members of the former government. He maintains he’s not bothered by attempts to smear his character and he will not sanction the use of government resources to fund shady deals with foreign investors.
“It’s no secret that we are engaged in some investigations into some of the transactions that took place during the last administration, some of which we believe have legal implications,” he said. “Of course, the responsibility of the government as we promised during the last election campaign is to investigate those transactions. That is ongoing. We have to fulfill our duties since we, as members of the government, are trustees for the assets of the state.”