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Rebuilding Self and Country: Deportee Reintegration in Jamaica
More than 45,000 Jamaicans were deported from abroad between 2000 and 2014, primarily from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Each month these countries return more than 100 Jamaicans on average to a nation grappling with persistently high levels of crime and poverty.
Deportees are not greeted with open arms upon return, in part due to a widely held view in Jamaica and the Caribbean more broadly—fostered by the media and government institutions—that they are to blame for the region's public safety troubles. A connection between deportees and crime has some precedent in other parts of the world; there is some evidence, for example, that the rise of transnational Central American gangs such as MS-13 was fueled by deportation of gang members from the United States. However, the same cannot be said for Jamaica, where only a tiny share of criminal deportees commits new crimes.
This article discusses the constructive roles returned migrants—a socially stigmatized population seen as criminal and unemployable—can play in rebuilding their lives while advancing the larger project of national development. It examines the experiences of a group of men and women in Jamaica deported from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada for criminal offenses, who now seek to contribute to their home country and to redefine what it means to be a deportee.
Deportations to Jamaica: Recent Trends
Few topics in Caribbean criminal justice systems are as contentious as deportation. It is widely believed that the region’s ongoing crime troubles can be tied to the activities of deportees returned after receiving significant “schooling” in crime during their sojourn abroad. However, a joint report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank in 2007 found that there is no clear relationship between the number of deportations and serious crime rates in Jamaica.
Jamaica receives the highest share of individuals deported from the United States on criminal grounds, with those convicted of criminal offenses accounting for 89 percent of Jamaican deportees repatriated in 2012. Nearly 88 percent of Jamaicans returned from all countries from 2006 to 2014, however, were deported for reasons unrelated to violent crime, the most common offenses being illegal immigration and drug possession.
From 2000 to 2013, a majority of deportees to Jamaica last resided in the United States (49 percent) and the United Kingdom (30 percent), with the remaining deported from Canada (7 percent) and a combination of other countries (14 percent), primarily in the Caribbean.
The increase in the deportation of Jamaicans from these countries is partly a consequence of the uptick in Jamaicans living in the North. It is also the result of a larger trend toward the increased use of deportation by destination countries in the global North, which have expanded the categories of offenses that make noncitizens removable. The scale of deportations from the United States increased dramatically after enactment of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Between 1994 and 2004, the annual number of criminal deportees from the United States to the Caribbean more than doubled. Jamaicans represented the second-largest group of Caribbean foreign nationals deported from the United States, after those from the Dominican Republic, between fiscal years 2003-13—with 17,314 Jamaican nationals removed from the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (A total of 37,064 Dominicans were removed during the same period.)
While the United States was the leading source of criminal deportations to Jamaica in the late 1990s, deportations from the United Kingdom rose dramatically in the 2000s. Immigration crimes accounted for the bulk of these deportations, but a rising number and share were drug-related crimes. The growth in cocaine marketing in the United Kingdom over this period—an activity traditionally associated with Jamaican “yardie” groups—might have contributed to this trend.
New Offenses Committed by Deportees
A common thread in Caribbean narratives about deportation—that criminal deportees generally will reoffend in their homeland—is not convincingly borne out for Jamaica. Evidence from a study conducted by Jamaica’s National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) in 2014 shows a small minority had reoffended, notwithstanding the serious nature of some of these offenses.
In the study, NIB, the investigative branch of the Jamaican police force, selected a sample of 1,000 people deported between 2005 and 2012—including both criminal and noncriminal deportees—to ascertain whether they had committed any crimes since their return. From this sample, 40 had been charged with one or more criminal offenses since their return. These were primarily drug-related, but other offenses included assault, robbery, and illegal possession of a firearm. Thus, a relatively small share (4 percent) of the population surveyed had committed a new crime in Jamaica. Furthermore, the survey results indicated no significant upward trend in reoffending.
These findings are in line with those of earlier studies conducted in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, in which only 13 percent and 15 percent of 332 and 565 criminal deportees surveyed, respectively, had subsequently been charged with a crime. This recidivism rate is low when compared with that of prisoners released from local prisons.
Building New Identities Post-Return
Further reduction in the incidence and risk factors for reoffending—such as homelessness and unemployment—requires support for the reintegration of deportees upon their return. In order to gauge how best to accomplish this, the University of West Indies (UWI) launched a series of workshops and seminars with 100 men and women who had been deported within the previous 36 months from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Participants had all been deported for one or more criminal convictions, or for having pled guilty to one or more criminal charges.
While still working through the challenges of being separated from their overseas family and community, workshop participants said they did not want to be burdens to Jamaica. If they were unable to return legally to families in the North, they said the next best thing would be to seek ways to get involved, and stay involved, with constructive initiatives at “yard” (meaning in Jamaica)—and that enrollment in the workshops was one step towards that goal.
Participants said the label “deportee,” with its connotations of “no good, dutty (dirty) criminal,” hampered their efforts to meaningfully participate in society. They said they felt their criminal conviction abroad and resulting deportation should not be their defining characteristic; rather, they referred to themselves as “deported migrants,” hoping this term would allow more room to negotiate Jamaican society.
Case Study: National Organization of Deported Migrants
One important result of the UWI workshops and research was the creation of the National Organization of Deported Migrants (NODM), which facilitates reintegration services for deportees in Jamaica. Founded in 2009 as an outgrowth of the Family Unification and Resettlement Initiative (FURI), a Jamaica-based nonprofit assisting in the reintegration of deportees, NODM focuses in particular on the social and economic reintegration of those deported for criminal offenses.
A rich landscape of local and international organizations and services works to meet the needs of the deportee population in Jamaica, including FURI and NODM as well as Open Heart Charitable Mission, Hibiscus Initiatives, the Salvation Army, and Open Arms Drop-In Center within Bellevue Hospital in Kingston. NODM occupies a unique space in that it is led by criminal deportees who have a particular focus on serving other criminal deportees, while maintaining structured relationships with government agencies and other NGOs. NODM membership is available to any Jamaican who has ever been expelled, deported, or otherwise forcibly removed from another country and returned to Jamaica, regardless of the reason for removal or whether the individual served a prison sentence.
With funding from donor agencies and the offices of the British High Commission in Kingston, NODM undertakes the following tasks:
- Greet deported migrants arriving from Britain, Canada, and the United States at the island’s two international airports, and help them clear their personal effects through Customs
- Transport newly arrived deportees to relatives able to take them in or to a temporary shelter when family is unavailable
- Assist new returnees with finding more permanent lodging and acquiring essential government identification documents, such as birth certificates and tax registration numbers
- Give advice on and/or direct deportees to resources for earning livelihoods.
More importantly, NODM also helps deportees launch small, self-sufficient enterprises, typically in agriculture, service, and inner-city revitalization. One project, for example, has engaged deported migrants in planting, harvesting, and selling carrots and potatoes. To fund such ventures, NODM has created community-managed, self-sustaining capital funds, from which loans for communal enterprises can be accessed and then paid back from future profits. The idea is to develop industries with the capacity to generate sustainable income and the ability to employ deportees.
The three principal founders of NODM, who each spent 15 to 20 years in U.S. prisons before being deported, now speak of themselves as “reformed,” and as focused on building productive futures in Jamaica. NODM members are similarly expected to step into contributing roles in society.
NODM also advocates for the rights of all Jamaicans who have lived abroad and returned, whether as professionals, retirees, or otherwise. The group’s advocacy attracted the attention of the Ministry of National Security and the Planning Institute of Jamaica, and NODM now holds an official consultative role within both agencies. These key government social planning departments are now incorporating the principle of inclusion into their policy positions. Contrary to earlier stances, which saw deportees as “nothing but trouble,” the official Jamaican position now appears to consider the experiences of the deported population as conceivably a reservoir of untapped skill sets and avenues for investments that could benefit the country.
International Actors, Local Services
Several international actors contribute to reintegration efforts in Jamaica. One example is Hibiscus Initiatives, a British NGO offering guidance and case management services to facilitate resettlement of foreign nationals detained or imprisoned in the United Kingdom, including those to be returned to Jamaica. In addition, the Salvation Army operates facilities for social services and education for underserved populations on the island, including community centers, a medical clinic, and an addiction rehabilitation center.
Besides NGOs, the British government has itself become an important actor in the area of deportee reintegration in Jamaica. Mutual opportunism brought NODM into a relationship with the UK Home Office. As the third-largest foreign contingent in British jails, Jamaicans have become a particular target for policy attention, as has the population of migrant criminals more generally. The British people “want this issue [of Britain housing foreign criminals] fixed, and they are not being unreasonable about it, and I will fix it,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2014.
In carrying out removal orders, enforcement agents were often met with resistance by their targets—which precipitated harsh physical restraint measures. During the 1990s and 2000s, several migrants died in the process of being deported following the use of extreme restraint tactics. In 1993, Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old unauthorized Jamaican woman, died after being bound and gagged by British officers trying to deport her.
In the wake of negative publicity following these deaths, Home Office representatives in 2012 reached out to NODM with an unusual proposition. They reasoned that a welcoming message from Jamaica might help reduce the fear and uncertainty felt by deportees about returning to the island—thereby reducing resistance. The Home Office offered NODM funding to pay for telecommunications hardware allowing migrants in removal centers to phone Jamaica prior to return. The British government also paid for a vehicle to pick up deportees at arrival in Jamaica, and the relationship has given NODM capacity to fulfill several key reintegration objectives.
Societal Acceptance: Key to Successful Reintegration
The work of NODM and similarly situated organizations aligns with what deportees themselves believe to be essential to their successful reintegration. A 2014 survey by Elizabeth Thomas-Hope for the International Organization on Migration and the British High Commission asked 300 deported migrants just this question, and respondents provided the following three common hopes for Jamaica:
- that it become less hostile and more accepting of them
- that it offer safe, decent living conditions, and
- that it provide opportunities for deported migrants to access sustainable livelihoods.
The first of these is arguably a precondition for the second and third goals. When a known deportee is entrusted with a good job or a deportee-owned business succeeds, the returned migrants involved are able to more fully reintegrate into society. Thus a positive reinforcement effect sets in, wherein giving deportees decent jobs helps combat stigma, in turn helping more of them obtain employment.
The Jamaican case illustrates that opportunities for economic inclusion are essential to successful reintegration. Such social and economic empowerment at the individual level has the added benefit of being good for national development. While rebuilding lives in their home country, deportees simultaneously build a community that allows others to do the same.
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