(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
Not vaccinating illegal migrants against the coronavirus would be a fatal mistake in every country. Unvaccinated persons pose a real threat to subduing COVID-19 and will delay the opening-up and recovery of economies.
There are two issues related to this matter. First, governments may be reluctant to inoculate illegal persons for fear that, by doing so, they will create attractive circumstances for more people to enter and remain illegally on their shores. Second, illegal immigrants may be reluctant to be inoculated because of concerns about exposing themselves to arrest and deportation by police.
This matter is an issue for all Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states from Belize in the north to Suriname in the south, including the Caribbean islands. It is well known that the Bahamas is home to illegal Haitians, Trinidad and Tobago now accommodates Venezuelan refugees as does Guyana which also has a share of Haitians and Dominican Republicans. In truth, every CARICOM country has a population of illegal immigrants to some extent. The problem, therefore, is region wide.
The COVID-19 pandemic demands national plans to deal with inoculating illegal immigrants for the safety of the citizens and legitimate residents of each country, and as part of the process of economic recovery. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has recently reported that the decline in Gross Domestic Product in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2020 “represents the greatest decline in 120 years”.
On May 27, the government of Canada partly opened the way for CARICOM countries to implement programmes to vaccinate illegals, as part of a wider programme to reach vulnerable people. In a new collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Canada has provided CAN$50 million (close to US$40 million) to support PAHO’s work to vaccine at-risk women, migrants, refugees, and transient persons.
But, this money is for use in more than 30 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, although I have been informed that there is a carve-out of CAN$6 million for the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) which has done remarkably well in providing testing and other COVID-19 related services.
All CARICOM countries, in thanking Canada for this generous donation to Latin America and the Caribbean, should ensure that they establish with PAHO their interest in implementing a programme to inoculate illegal migrants.
Dr. Carissa Etienne, the Director-General of PAHO, has explained why it is in the interest of Caribbean countries to ensure that illegal migrants are vaccinated. She said: “By offering vaccines to transient populations, countries in the Caribbean and Latin America can deter additional burdens to their national health systems due to infections while mitigating further transmission of the virus. This alliance (between PAHO and Canada) is pivotal to offer much-needed technical cooperation for a comprehensive response against COVID-19, to save lives and leave no one behind.” To emphasise Dr. Etienne’s point: countries that fail to inoculate illegal migrants could incur huge medical costs, treating citizens and residents who get infected. Wider infection will also mean a longer period for economic rebuilding.
Even if every Caribbean country inoculates all its citizens and legal residents, the entire society remains in real danger of infection while unvaccinated illegals move around in their country. Illegal migrants tend to live in heavily populated areas with poor sanitation facilities, where transmission of communicable diseases, such as COVID-19, is more likely. They also work on construction sites, in farming communities or in the homes of people as domestic help. Their nearness to their employers and fellow workers puts everyone at risk.
The onus is on governments to tackle this problem directly in several ways. Here are four steps that might be considered. First, make it clear that illegal migrants who seek inoculation will not be rounded-up by the police and deported. Such a programme of information could be disseminated in communities where illegal migrants are believed to live, and on social media platforms.
Second, the health authorities should consider organising mobile facilities to go into the areas where illegals live and work, offering them inoculations in an environment in which they feel relatively safe. If mobile facilities are not available, setting up special clinics in the locations where migrants congregate might also be an option.
Third, the government should provide an undertaking that the gathered information would not be provided to the police or immigration departments for the purpose of deportation. The information should be used only for the purpose of issuing a vaccination certificate and providing a date on which a second dose of the vaccine would occur.
Fourth, recognizing that many, if not all, of the illegal migrants would have no official identity cards, a requirement could be that they provide two passport photographs, one of which could be attached to their certificate and the other kept in the records of health authorities to verify identities at the time of the second vaccine.
Munya Radzi, the head of Regularise, a UK based campaign to obtain rights for undocumented migrants, points out: “In my experience people do want to get the vaccine, people do want to be part of the solution to control the spread of the virus but it’s the fear of what happens to me if I go to get this vaccine”. He adds: “Unless they get a strong assurance that their data won’t be shared, they will not go”.
The adverse consequences of not vaccinating illegal migrants are great, both for curbing the spread of infections and for delaying the ability of countries to open their economies and get recovery going. The UN says that “the decline in GDP and the expected increase in unemployment rates will raise the number of people living in poverty and extreme poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean by 45 and 28.5 million, respectively”.
Not vaccinating illegals as part of the population is not an option in these circumstances. Every country in the world will have to face the problem, however reluctantly.
The Caribbean could lead the way globally.
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