Ministerial accountability requires that the Minister of National Security explain the case of Jael James, the 21-year-old Trinidadian woman who has been stuck in St Vincent since last year March and is desperately trying to get home amid the eruption of La Soufriere volcano.
In a heart-breaking interview with this newspaper, Ms James told how she had written to the Ministry of National Security four times, requesting the required exemption to be allowed home. Each time, she received the usual automated response. By September, jobless, with dwindling funds and struck by dengue, she said she wrote directly to Minister Young, pleading to be allowed home. No response. On Friday, when the Express contacted him on Ms James’ plight, Minister Young seemed ready to act with alacrity, promising to look into her application “immediately and have it addressed as well as any other applications from persons in St Vincent and the Grenadines”.
However, even if her approval were now fast-tracked, it may not be easy for Ms James and others to get home. On Friday, Caribbean Airlines cancelled all flights on its Grenada/Barbados/St Vincent route. Yesterday, Barbados closed its airspace due to visibility problems caused by volcanic ash. Her only option may be by sea, assuming that’s even possible.
The case of Jael James is important for two reasons. One, it shows a complete lack of planning by the Trinidad and Tobago Government in relation to nationals in St Vincent on a matter for which it had months to plan. After all, La Soufriere had been rumbling since December and has more recently been signalling its intention to erupt.
Secondly, her story is one repeated by nationals abroad whose pleas to come home are being ignored by the Ministry of National Security. Instead, we are routinely presented with lumped figures that give the impression that the problem of citizens being stuck abroad has been largely resolved and, worse, that many applicants choose not to come home when granted permission to land. In the absence of disaggregated data, the public has no way of making sense of these figures and can be easily misled into ignoring people like Ms James whose experiences are far from rare.
On the matter of preparation, the Ministry of Foreign and Caricom Affairs should have been taking the lead in working with its counterpart ministry and other contacts in St Vincent to identify and communicate with our nationals there, well before La Soufriere erupted, complicating communication and transport arrangements.
On this subject, we are baffled by the portfolio protocols of the Rowley Cabinet. On Thursday, when La Soufriere erupted, and when Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was well enough in quarantine to hold virtual meetings with international energy executives and host a Cabinet meeting, he delegated to Minister Young the critical responsibility of calling Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines. At a time when a fellow Caricom leader was battling a crisis, one would have expected Dr Rowley, as Prime Minister of T&T and chairman of Caricom, to have made that phone call himself. If he did, then he should let us know.
His follow-up published statement was no substitute.