The Premier was asked at a recent press conference about possible changes to the government’s policy on Belongership. This policy encourages persons to only apply for such status once they have met a residency requirement of 20 years even though the law says that they can apply after 10 years of residency.
“We have to have a national conversation in my view—one which I will lead as Minister of Immigration. A national conversation of what we want the Virgin Islands to look like moving into the future,” Premier Wheatley said.
Premier Wheatley noted that the Commission of Inquiry (COI) report calls for a review by a senior public servant of the current law on Belongership in place and said he is hopeful that that review can start very quickly so that the people of the Virgin Islands can have their say.
According to the Premier, the challenge with the policy which has been enforced in recent years is that it didn’t match the law.
“Well, I mean, what we’ve said is that the law has to be enforced and that means just what it means. So, if the law states 10 years, that’s what has to be enforced until the laws change or our policy has changed,” Dr Wheatley stated.
He added: “So, if we wanted, for instance, persons to be able to apply after 20 years, what we should have done was amend the law to reflect that. That was not done. So, the current law, as it states, says 10 years, and that’s what has to be enforced until such time whether there’s a change, okay.”
In the meantime, the Premier said the BVI has had persons who have come here from various places and have made wonderful contributions to the territory.
“We also have persons who have ancestry here going back hundreds of years, who certainly have their views and their concerns,” he added.
The goal for officials, he said, is to be able to balance those concerns and realities by the various stakeholder groups and come up with something that can best serve the Virgin Islands as a whole moving into the future.
“I would have to say it’s going to be something that’s difficult because I think up until this point we haven’t properly managed even sentiment as it relates to immigration,” the Premier noted.
“There are examples of I would say xenophobia; examples of insensitivity among various groups; lots of different examples of, in my view, what the wrong thing is. And there’s a lot of healing that has to take place and some frank and honest conversations which have to take place.”
The Premier said he hopes that as a society, persons are mature enough to have those conversations without being at each other’s throats. He further called the issue a “very emotive and divisive” one.
“I’m asking that we have the conversation in a respectful manner that reflects our Christian and religious values. If you’re not a Christian, [please speak in a way] that reflects our humanitarian instincts and reflects our respect for various groups of people around the world. So that’s what I would hope for,” he added.