During a recent trip to Ghana, Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo said that Guyana, with its small population and limited labour force, would reach full employment soon. He said that Guyana would have to consider an active immigration policy. In August 2016, in an article entitled “Guyana’s future as an oil producer,” I wrote as follows: “If we are serious about progress, an immigration policy would have to be determined and systems put in place for its implementation. In recent years Guyana has welcomed Brazilians, Chinese and a smaller number of Indians. Emigration from these countries would increase and Guyana would begin to welcome emigrants from Caricom and other countries. The Guyanese people need to be prepared for these developments.” More recently, Guyana has welcomed a sizeable number of economic refugees from Venezuela. VP Jagdeo, therefore, did not say anything that would not have been known by anyone knowledgeable about recent developments. But, coming from a leading member of the Government, political figures are already speculating on where the immigrants are going to come from. This, of course, relates to the potential political implications of large-scale immigration having regard to Guyana’s ethno-political equation.
Oil was discovered more than five years ago, and production started in December 2019. It is clear that since that time, the APNU+AFC Government hardly prepared for the tasks ahead and the PPP/C Government is still struggling with basic issues. The legislation for the Natural Resources Fund is not yet complete. The Petroleum Commission has not been appointed. Important tasks, such as the appointment of auditors to verify the expenses of Exxon, have not been accomplished. Capacity in Guyana is in very limited, including at the highest level of Government, and this needs to be quickly remedied. If I could have predicted more than five years that “an immigration policy would have to be determined,” then others in government, or preparing to enter government, must have envisaged the same need. If a governmental team has not yet been established to consider immigration policy, then we are in bad shape. But I would not be surprised if no such team has been established, having regard to the fact that the more urgent issue of auditing Exxon’s expenses has been allowed to lapse.
There are several issues regarding immigration. The first is to determine what categories of labour that Guyana would need including unskilled, skilled and professional. Although it would be difficult at this stage to assess numbers, the history of immigration in Middle East countries can be looked to for guidance. The next issue would be the policies that would be applied to immigrants. In many Middle East countries citizenship is not granted to persons employed under contracts from other countries. The stated reason is to preserve the country’s integrity, political stability and wealth for its citizens. But many negative connotations have been attributed to these policies. The third issue would be to examine the applicable laws to ascertain what amendments should be made. For example, there is no status of permanent residence. For foreigners not on vacation, residence is based on the grant of work permits; the right of residence expires on the expiration of work permits which are granted at the discretion of the Ministry of Home Affairs and are not backed by any legislation. Work permits are usually issued for one year or less. The laws that would need to be updated and upgraded include the Constitution, the Citizenship Act, the Immigration Act and the Aliens (Immigration and Registration Act).
Guyana’s Constitution is liberal as regards citizenship. Any person lawfully residing in Guyana for five years can apply for citizenship. Any person married to a citizen is entitled to citizenship. Children born to parents, one of whom is a citizen, are eligible for citizenship, wherever they may reside. These laws exist in many countries. However, in developed countries which attract immigrants, there are rigid laws which restrict the admission of immigrants. They generally admit only skilled persons and sponsored family members. However, they are generally entitled to citizenship after a period, usually in the vicinity of five years.
Middle East countries with oil and/or gas wealth, or are otherwise highly developed, have immigrant populations that are many times the size of their indigenous populations. As stated above, many do not offer citizenship to their immigrant populations. These populations cannot vote or access social benefits or bring their families. Guyana will have to decide what approach to take in relation to immigrants, especially since the speculation is that Guyana will eventually require twice the size of its population, and this can only come from immigration. Unless a regime of contract workers and professionals, without the right of citizenship, is established, difficult political questions will arise. At the same time, contradictions are likely to arise in relation to Commonwealth/Caricom citizens, particularly professionals, who are entitled to work permits under the Treaty of Chaguaramas. Contradictions will also arise in relation to the right to vote. Our Constitution provides that Commonwealth citizens residing in Guyana for one year or more have a right to vote. Should that right be withdrawn?
The only way to resolve these difficult issues is to start the planning and preparation now.