The Limits of Our Empathy

In early January 2015, the award-winning Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole wrote an essay in the wake of the Charle Hebdo shootings in Paris. In that piece, titled “Unmournable Bodies“, he explored the myth of The West as an amalgamation of serene societies being provoked into violent action by savages. Later in the same essay, he speaks to why the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack (and later the victims of the November 15 attacks) became symbols of Western solidarity and worthy of mourning while other atrocities (he mentions the ongoing abductions and killings in Mexico, state sanctioned slaughter in Gaza, massacres and more abductions in Nigeria) go without us paying similar amounts of attention. He comes rightly to the conclusion that we cannot respond to every barbarity committed in the world, but we should question how certain deaths are ascribed greater meaning, and therefore commemoration while others are effaced from our collective memories.

There is a centuries-long history of BVIslanders braving the waters of the Caribbean Sea in search of improved lives, often without formal papers or documents that we would consider standard today. Whether they landed in Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or elsewhere, many returned home having established lifelong connections to their new homes, but many remained where they landed and planted new roots in a new home. Some souls perished at sea as well. The horrors of an ordeal such as that cannot be captured in black and white.

These narratives for the most part have been buried in a shallow past, replaced by what we now see as legitimate migratory reasons – usually the pursuit of tertiary education. But I would argue that the impetus is the same. The need for the degrees from North American or European universities is to equip the individual with the qualifications necessary to improve their lot in life in the future, just like the person who risks everything in order to find something better. However, there is often another dimension to the sort of migrations we are talking about. Whereas BVIslanders at the turn of the last century were fleeing dire economic conditions and a lack of jobs and opportunity, many of the migrants we see in Caribbean waters are fleeing similar poverty and sometimes violence. This added dimension means that remaining where they are is not seen as a viable option, and the desperation that this creates makes them easy targets for traffickers to exploit. There is nothing in this dynamic that paints them as degenerate and criminal (a recurring theme in recent American politics), in fact, what little we know would seem to demand some quantity of empathy from us.

Recently news broke about a boat that had been stranded, then abandoned in waters near Virgin Gorda. The captain of the boat was (and presumably still is) nowhere to be found, and the 20 Cubans on board were rescued and then immediately detained. The news report estimated that each person had paid $5,000 for the trip from St. Maarten to the United States Virgin Islands after another larger sum secured them passage from Cuba to St. Maarten. A week earlier, 20 other migrants were rescued. That group comprised of three Haitians and seventeen Cubans. Over the summer, another boat on a similar route with a similar number of passengers capsized. Four were rescued. There has been no public outcry, no public conversation save for the impassioned letters to media outlets by relatives of some of the Cubans currently in detention. In fact, the sorts of anonymous comments some have posted have been deplorable.

This phenomenon strikes me. I have begun to wonder what renders the humanity of these people invisible. In the aftermath of both attacks in Paris, social action avatars and hashtags flooded social media. First #jesuischarlie in response to the January attacks on the staff of the satirical magazine and then #istandwithparis and then the Tricolore profile pictures after the November attacks. Where is the outpouring of sympathy for the lives that have been and continue to be lost in the Francis Drake Channel?

While the communal silence on the Virgin Islands’ role in the surge in Cubans trying to find passage to the United States is disturbing, the manner of our news coverage is deeply problematic. The people who have been stranded in our waters and islands are consistently referred to as “illegal” immigrants despite there being no intention by them to enter or stay in the BVI. Their migrations are also commonly referred to as “human trafficking” but we have not heard any discussion about sexual exploitation or forced labour. Frankly, we have not heard much about them at all. Their breaking of BVI laws is an unintentional consequence of the delinquency or maliciousness of the various boat captains, and while ignorance of the law is by no means expected to give us protections from it, this aspect of their predicament points to a gap in our capacity to apply sympathy for people seeking asylum. To his credit, Governor John Duncan declared legislation addressing asylum requests a priority in his Throne Speech to the House of Assembly a week ago and it will be interesting to see how those conversations unfold in government.

In the interim, the bodies of the seventeen souls lost in July were never recovered. Their names have not been made public and we do not know if their families were ever informed or if their names were known to our authorities. I know of no concerted efforts to attempt to make their losses register in the national consciousness. Do their lives not matter?

Another seventeen Cubans and three Haitians from the stranded vessel that was captured in September have been detained indefinitely at Her Majesty’s Prison. According to their relatives, no official has met with them to discuss their desires to seek asylum. They are barred from access to communication. They are without clothes. They are fed little.

All of these allegations are serious and seem at the very least violations of the detainees’ human rights. Contemporary global and international opinions also appear to side with this perspective of the families. The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks earlier this year demanded that British ministers refrain from referring to foreign nationals as illegal immigrants regardless of their status. According to Muižnieks: “People are not illegal. Their legal status may be irregular, but that does not render them beyond humanity.”

Amnesty International likewise challenges the practice of detaining migrants and asylum seekers in prisons. According to that organization, detention must be proven justifiable and necessary in each individual case. By that measure we are failing. What is actually recommended is community-based supervision (perhaps through aid organisations like the BVI Red Cross) partnered with regular reporting and checking in to BVI Immigration. Amnesty International reports that method as having a 91 percent success rate with respect to appearances at detention courts. With the relatively small numbers of detainees we are discussing, I would expect that rate to be even higher in our territory. Prolonged detention after the psychological trauma experienced in a failed defection or asylum effort has proven severe negative effects not limited to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, mass repatriation without entertaining individual asylum requests may at times lead to violent reprisals from factions who the asylum seekers were fleeing in the first place. In the least case, many have nothing left to return to having risked whatever assets they had to get to the United States.

What makes this particular situation particularly distressing and problematic is that had these vessels made it to the USVI, the Cuban survivors may actually have had a chance to have their requests heard. However, as a result of the U.S.’ wet foot, dry foot policy, if they were stranded or abandoned in USVI waters, they would not be able to attain residency, but the possibility of seeking asylum in a third country would be allowed. That option appears to have been essentially taken off the table. It will be interesting to see what the new laws governing asylum seekers do to change the current modus operandi.

Wherever the decisions of our lawmakers fall with respect to the treatment of those seeking asylum in the BVI or those who we find attempting to pass through our waters while seeking a better life in the United States, the one thing we can be certain of is that the vast majority of people detained here and eventually repatriated are not hardened criminals seeking to destabilize our society. Rather, they are desperate people seeking to improve the lot that they have drawn in life, coincidentally not too unlike a brave generation of BVIslanders who once found themselves on boats buffeting the Atlantic on their way to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Panama.

In the October 13 2016 issue of The BVI Beacon, Freeman Rogers reports on developments in this case. The detainees have been allowed to apply for asylum and have since been relocated to Prospect Reef Resort. They have also been granted contact with The BVI Red Cross and other volunteer agencies. Officials from the United Nations Refugee Agency are expected to visit the BVI to facilitate the asylum process. Those interested in assisting may contact The BVI Red Cross at 284-494-6349.