Immigration and visas crop up during Guyana consul’s visit

POSTED: 06/11/12 1:10 PM

St. Maarten / By Torana Granston- More than 200 Guyanese nationals applied for Caricom machine readable passports during the three day visit of Guyana’s Honorary Consul to Antigua & Barbuda, Robert E. Reis, to St. Maarten this past weekend. Reis left the Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort on Sunday destined for Antigua with official documents in tow for the processing of passports, birth certificates and marriage certificates.

“The response was good.  There were folks who wanted to do passport processing but didn’t have the necessary documentation, so they were advised of what they would need in time for my next visit.”

That next visit that Reis speaks of is expected to be within three months now that he has been officially appointed by the Guyanese government to provide consular services here. In early May Guyana and St. Maarten exchanged diplomatic notes giving Reis the go ahead to officially solidify his position here after eight years of travelling between Antigua and St. Maarten. Based on St. Maarten’s acceptance of his credentials he will be allowed to provide services up to December 31, 2012 in the initial stages.

“Since I started coming here in 2004 it was kind of a loose arrangement. I informed the then Lt. Governor that while I was not accredited for St. Maarten I would still come over from time to time. That has now changed. This formalization of the relationship has now taken some of the confusion out of the issue, so that Guyanese now know that the person who they are to deal with, will be myself,” Reis said.

The honorary consul paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams on Thursday for the first of what he foresees will be fruitful meetings. One of the concerns Reis raised with the prime minister was the possibility of granting a visa waiver to Guyanese nationals who are legally residing in neighboring islands and are desirous of entering St. Maarten to do shopping. Reis said that though the suggestion was made in an informal manner, he would be pursuing it with Guyana’s Secretary General for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Elizabeth Harper. He was quick to point out however that only persons who have established ties in their adopted country ought to be considered for the visa waiver.  Currently, all Guyanese nationals who do not possess a multiple entry United States visa are required to apply for a visitor’s visa before entering St. Maarten on leisure.

“There is an economic benefit for St. Maarten as well since persons will just be coming here for two days or so to shop. I spoke with Guyanese in Tortola and Antigua and they all complained about the same thing; that it was a long, cumbersome process to apply for a St. Maarten visa for just a two day visit when some of them are permanent residents elsewhere.”

A release from the prime minister’s press office states that parties also discussed strengthening relations between the countries and their respective roles in the region.

After the Guyana government set 2013 as the cut off point for the use of the traditional passports, Reis said that it did not make much sense for him to frequent the island to do renewals of these passports. In February, Guyana took the decision to allow consulates within the region to process applications for the biometric passports under the condition that issuing authority for these passports would still rest with the South American country’s passport office. Since then Guyana’s Honorary Consul to St. Kitts, Stanford Conway has also engaged Guyanese here for biometric passport processing.

“People are happy to know that they will be better served. They are happy to know that they would not have to fly home on an expensive ticket to change to the new passport. Most places require the biometric passport now; there are lots of advantages to this type of passport. It makes it easier to check in at several international terminals and also improves security,” Reis opined.

When asked whether he saw the need to set up a diplomatic mission here, Reis said that for economic reasons and based immigrant population here, such a need would not be feasible.

“I don’t know that it is justified to set up a diplomatic mission here. Antigua has a Guyanese population of over 10, 000 and we do not have a mission. I think the records at the Census Office would show less Guyanese here.”

A furor in early February over who was actually authorized to serve this Northeastern Caribbean territory renewed calls for Guyana to consider establishing a consular office here. Reis’ liaison officer at the time, Dian Douglas, was accused of postulating herself as a consular agent, a claim she vehemently denied. To set the record straight the Guyana government sent the Directorate of Foreign Relations (DBB) a letter indicating that it had never appointed Douglas to accept applications for biometric passports or any other services for resident Guyanese. At that time, the letter also stated that the country would only accord the highest level of respect to St. Maarten and would in no way seek to contravene its laws.

When asked about Douglas’ role in passport processing, Reis was a bit evasive. He said that he preferred not to comment on the issue since the Guyana government was currently conducting an investigation in to what transpired here. He did however characterize his working relationship with Douglas up until February as “good” adding that “I don’t know under what authority that she was doing the passports. It was certainly not through me.”

Douglas has always maintained that she assisted Reis while he was on island and off by accepting passport applications and then forwarding them to his Antigua office or sometimes Georgetown directly to be returned to individuals in the shortest possible time frame. Several birth certificates and other documents from the Antigua Consulate also bore Douglas’ name under the title of consular agent.

Claiming to have severed ties with Douglas, Reis worked along with a seasoned clerk Vanessa Fraser from 07:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily to ensure that his trip was meaningful. During that time he encountered many persons who needed sound advice or representation on immigration and legal matters.

“It was the hardest I have ever worked,” he laughingly says.

Reis called on all Guyanese to pay close attention to media reports, citing past experiences that people often turn up to be served even after he has left. This time around the print and electronic media were utilized to announce Reis’ visits as well as social networking sites such as Facebook.

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