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The Montserrat Crisis

The Island of Montserrat was a beautiful 12 by 7 miles patch of land in the eastern Caribbean. It was beautiful until the first in a series of disasters befell it 9 years ago. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo buffeted the Island and its 11,000 inhabitants leading to loss of life and physical damage running into millions of pounds. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the entire main city of Plymouth lay in ruins. The resilient islanders rebuilt their homes over six painstaking years, but then, just as things were getting back to normal, the reconstruction programme began to look wasted as a volcano in Soufriere Hills, south of the island - which had been dormant for more than 300 years - began to rumble. The volcano eventually erupted and destruction of a large part of the country is history - history generously recorded by the cameras of world?s media organisations.
Once the eruptions stopped and the press deemed the Montserrat story stale, their cameras were packed away and they went in search of new disaster areas on which to fuel their ratings war. Montserrat receded in the memory of most viewers. For the Islanders, though, the nightmare had only just begun. The volcano had destroyed most of the southern part of the island. Whatever was not buried by the solidified lava was covered by a thick layer of grey dust. What was worse, the islanders were unsure of what to do next as experts were uncertain as to whether or not there would be any more eruptions in the near future. There were two choices left to the islanders: move further north to parts of the island relatively - though not completely - safe from the volcano or flee the island completely.
In order to accommodate those who would stay behind, the governor of the Island - Frank Savage - advised the Foreign Office that 1,000 new homes would have to be built up North. The recommendation was made as early as 1995 when there were signs of volcanic activity. However, at the height of the crisis only 100 homes had been built to accommodate the fleeing islanders. As the experts had been unable to predict the volcano, the Governor felt that he would look stupid if, after spending so much money on houses, the volcano did not erupt and the island was littered with unoccupied and unneeded houses. In the event, there were violent eruptions, leading, last June, to the loss of 19 lives. Today, many of those who stayed behind are still living in shanty, makeshift shelters in deplorable conditions. The lack of preparedness of the Island to accommodate them meant that more people than expected took the option of leaving the island.
In the aftermath of the eruptions, there was an influx of Montserratians into neighbouring countries which found it difficult to cope. Antigua, for example, was at a loss as to what to do when they were faced with a stream of 3,000 Montserratian refugees. Invariably, may of those who left the island found themselves in the Britain. Britain was, after all, their motherland and they expected to get the same kind of treatment that the inhabitants of, say, Gillingham or Peterborough would receive from the government after falling victim to a disaster of such a scale. They could not have been more wrong. No one, it appears, seems to have taken any serious interest at their plight. Many of them are unsure of their statuses in this country for, despite being British ?overseas citizens?, they were only given exceptional leave to remain in the country for two years ?or until the crisis ended?. What defines the end of the crisis, no one has bothered to tell them. When the lava stops flowing? When Montserrat has been rebuilt? Once some expert says it is okay to return to the Island?
No special arrangements were made to monitor the entrance of the Montserratians into the country and, at this point in time, the government cannot say how many of them are in this country and what part of the country they are in. The implications of this are clear - the government had no plans for any kind of compensation, health monitoring etc. The importance of health monitoring is evidenced by the revelation that the fine particles of the volcanic dust contains a substance called cristobalite which could cause silicosis (a lung disease). It is now doubtful that a comprehensive health check can be carried out, in the unlikely event that the government chooses to do so.
When the Montserratians landed in Britain, they were not given the choice to decide in what part of the country they wanted to live. The were simply allocated to various designated Local Councils and if for any reason (eg family ties) they refused to go to these places, the government refused to give any additional funding to the Council of their choice. This policy of course made things difficult for the Montserratians and some of the Councils which were willing to help.
Many of the evacuees arrived with absolutely nothing - for reasons of which we are all aware - and were given less than enough to buy the most essential furniture for their new homes. When they contacted the social services for more assistance they were offered loans.
The above criticisms are not to imply that the British government has not helped the Montserratians a great deal. The argument is simply that had this misfortune befallen another class of British citizens, they would have received much better treatment and the government would have been less inclined to patronise them the way they did the Montserratians. We would not, for instance, have had the unfortunate comments made by Clare Short which implied that many of the Montserratians were scroungers.
In the wake of the fiasco and the growing agitation by community groups and the more vocal evacuees, the government, early this year, appointed the Refugee Action group to provide support for the evacuees. To this end, Refugee Action created The Montserrat Project. In March this year, Black Perspective spoke to project leader Brian Richardson who explained the background to the creation of the organisation.
?Ever since the volcanic crisis began in 1995, a whole series of volunteer community organisations have helped, for instance Montserratian organisations, African Caribbean groups, churches and charities. They worked tirelessly to help those who came between 1995 and 1997. It was due to their lobbying of the government - that some sort of national provision needed to be made for Montserratians - that the Home Office Community Relations decided to establish the Montserrat Project.
?The community groups have certainly not been made redundant. The aim of the Project is not to make them redundant. It is all very well that we may be able to provide the basics like housing and education which is what the government has agreed to do for Montserratians under the two year exceptional leave to stay, but in order to survive, to feel at home and prosper in this country they still need a network of community support.
?There are three things that the project specifically sets out to do. Firstly, we have to ensure that the Montserratians have access to resources that they are entitled to while they are here in Britain. They are entitled to education, social services benefits, health care, and to work. There are also specific schemes introduced by the government for the Montserrat case, for instance the special higher education grant scheme which pays for them to go to universities. There is a special housing scheme whereby the local councils can claim ?1,500 per property in order to make those properties available for Montserratians. Our job is to make sure that all these facilities and services that Montserratians are entitled to are made available.
?Our second aim is to strengthen the network of support and community groups which help them to settle down in the country. We also aim to interpret government policies and to inform the government of the concerns of Montserratians. We will help the government in recognising where there are shortcomings in the provision for Montserratians and to ensure that these shortcomings are mitigated.?

The government did not properly monitor the Montserratians? entrance into the country. How, then, will these tasks be effectively carried out when they do not know where many of the evacuees are?

?It is difficult for us to ensure that all the Montserratians are getting the benefits and resources available to them for this reason. This is a very valid criticism of the way the crisis was handled. What we try to do is to make our existence known all over the country ? by word of mouth, (the Montserratian community is very small, so a lot of information is spread this way), through community organisations, church groups and social events, and of course through the Black press.?

The two-year exceptional leave to stay will almost certainly be extended, but seeing that at a large part of the island is destroyed by the volcano, is the government doing anything to help restore the island so that these people do not eventually return to a devastated country?

?The government has made it clear that it is committed to the future of Montserrat and the Montserrat government has drawn up some plans which various government agencies here are looking at to see whether they represent a feasible plan for rebuilding the island. The government?s position at the moment is that it is not feasible for Montserratians to return to the island, so at the moment they are not making significant resources available for people to return. They have made a few million pounds available to build pre-fab shelters for those who chose to remain on the island... I agree that many Montserratians feel let down that they are being left in limbo. Many feel that they have been loyal citizens of Britain and that this loyalty should be repaid by the government granting them full citizenship.

Would most of them like to go back?

?The majority, I think, will like to return to Montserrat if the Island can be rebuilt. It has been a big culture shock to come to Britain... to leave a beautiful, small, sunny island where everyone knows everyone, to come to a country that is much bigger, much colder and where people are distributed in cities that are 100 of miles away from each other.?

Is there any help our readers and the Black community at large can offer Montserratians while they are in this country?

?Any assistance will be greatly appreciated ? whether it is help with the education, establishing social networks, helping them to get to know the country or helping with employment opportunities. Employment certainly is a very great concern because many Montserratians are being forced onto the job seekers allowance which says you have to be actively seeking work. But because they do not know whether they will be staying for more than 2 years, they are at a disadvantage in this area. Employers are less likely to employ someone when they are not sure how long he or she will stay. It is also true that Montserratians who have qualification and are often much more educated than people in this country are finding out that their qualifications are not being recognised.

For further information on how Montserratians can be helped, the Montserrat project can be contacted at:
2nd Floor, 197-199 City Road, London EC1V 1JN. Tel: 0171 336 8082. Fax: 0171 490 1195. E-mail: montserratpj@gn.apc.org.
or: 2nd Floor, Business Centre, Chinese Quarter, Ladywell walk, Birmingham B5 4RX. Tel: 0121 693 9971. Fax: 0121 693 1777.
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