Between November 2022 and January 2023, hundreds of asylum seekers arrived on the shores of Antigua, a small island and alluring holiday destination in the West Indies. The refugees had traveled from Cameroon expecting to arrive in the United States. With poverty in Antigua affecting a fifth of the population, the arrival of more than 900 migrants in the country was unexpected. Three months later, the fate of the remaining 637 Cameroonian refugees in Antigua is still undetermined.
The Flight from Cameroon
Several thousand miles away from Antigua, across the Atlantic, a bloody six-year civil war is happening in Cameroon. At the end of last year, 900 Anglophone Cameroonians bought flight tickets from Nigeria to Antigua to escape the conflict. Many have paid human traffickers as much as $6,000 in return for safe passage to the United States and assistance with their visa applications. Instead, the traffickers abandoned refugees in Antigua.
The debacle followed an attempt by the government of Antigua and Bermuda to establish an air route between Central Africa and the twin island nation. After four charter planes and 900 unexpected refugees in Antigua, the government decided to suspend all incoming charter flights from Central Africa and announced its intention to repatriate those who had already come. It has since reversed its repatriation plan citing humanitarian reasons.
The Economic Situation in Antigua
The people of Antigua are more accustomed to welcoming tourists rather than asylum claimants. It is unclear how the presence of hundreds of Cameroonian refugees in Antigua, most of whose funds have been spent on charter flights, affects the communities with limited resources.
The overall rate of poverty in Antigua and Barbuda is high but it is 5% lower than the regional average of 23%. The rate is even higher among the young: 24% of children aged 0–17 and 25% of adolescents aged 10–19. Severe poverty is projected to increase in the Eastern Caribbean nation amid the continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Irma, which devastated the nation in 2017. According to figures gathered by UNICEF, the rate of severe poverty in Antigua’s overall population is due to rise sixfold up to 24%. For children, the projected figure is even higher at 29%.
Refugee Reception in Antigua
Local reports say that residents have shown hospitality to the Cameroonians despite the high poverty rate in the country. Governor General Sir Rodney Williams has stated that the government will look after the African refugees in Antigua. He said that Antigua was “committed to protecting all residents from exploitation and harsh treatment” and that “no foreign national, except for criminals, should fear deportation.”
Antigua’s Information Minister has promised a skills audit to “determine the benefits” of permitting the refugees in Antigua to stay. Melford Nicholas announced that “as the economy continues to expand, we’re going to need additional skills.” He also said that Antigua would provide the asylum seekers with accommodation and “find a way to give them legal status here.” He also expressed the hope that Antiguans would “embrace and have an open heart” to the Cameroonians. The government played down speculation of plans to offer passports to the arrivals after opposition parties voiced alarm. The United Nations (U.N.) is also planning an analysis of the situation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to determine the number of refugees in Antigua who wish to remain permanently.
What is Next?
With poverty as a serious and increasing problem in the Caribbean island, no one could have expected the arrival of 900 Cameroonian refugees in Antigua. While many of the refugees move on, some could end up settling in the country. It is expected that once the government’s skills audit is complete, the remaining Cameroonians will be free to contribute their skills to Antigua and improve its economy.
– Samuel Chambers