Late last year, authorities in Antigua made much ado about the commencement of an air charter service that would have helped the Caribbean realize a decades-old dream: to establish an air bridge to Africa.

On the charter’s inaugural flight to the Eastern Caribbean island, hundreds of passengers from West Africa, many of them from Cameroon, jumped on the chance to fly to the region, remain for a while, raise some money, and eventually find a creative way to head to the U.S. or Canada using the now-defunct Antigua Airways.

Local officials helped many of them find jobs and did nothing to force them off the island, but in the intervening months, many complained about destitution as their finances were depleted and life became increasingly difficult.

When some of them heard of a boat smuggling service to the not-so-far away U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), those with enough cash jumped at the chance and left the island to travel north to the U.S. territory. The idea of reaching the USVI while undocumented is fueled by the belief that a passenger might be able to board a domestic flight from there to the U.S. and land without a visa, because that would not be treated as an international service.

But tragedy struck off neighboring St. Kitts on March 28, when the severely overloaded vessel sank, killing about 15 people. A total of 14 were rescued by passing vessels and taken to St. Kitts, where they have remained, awaiting repatriation to Antigua as the government there had promised. Only three bodies have been found.

At the weekend, however, Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne announced that he is walking back on the promise to take back the Cameroonians, because they will eventually try again to leave the island for so-called greener pastures. His announcement has caused severe angst in St. Kitts, where authorities say they will still try to persuade PM Browne to change his mind.

“Why bring them back when they are likely to smuggle out of the country again?” he was quoted as saying in a governing party publication. This is as the 14 are being held in a detention center in St. Kitts. Unhappy and frustrated, five of the group made good their escape at the weekend, but four were recaptured and are back in detention, jobless and cashless.

Authorities in Basseterre, the capital, say they will follow international protocols in dealing with groups like the Cameroonians, even while clinging to hope that Antigua will keep its promise.

“The government of St. Kitts and Nevis continues to pursue workable and diplomatic solutions as it is duty bound so to do,” said a national security ministry statement.

On landing on the inaugural flight last year, many passengers indicated that they were anxious to leave Cameroon to escape conflict between parts of the country that have Anglophone leanings versus those that are Francophone. The Anglos complain of deliberate marginalization by the Francophones, leading to political and ethnic tensions.

Meanwhile, PM Browne said it will make little sense to continue pursuing the dream of a Caribbean-Africa air service because undocumented migrants, rather than tourists and business people, are dominating the service.

“In essence, Antigua Airways is practically a defunct entity at this point as we are very gun-shy about continuing those charters because of what happened. We ended up with these opportunistic migrants who came into the country,” the prime minister told Antigua Newsroom recently.

In all, about 900 West Africans made the trip via the short-lived service. Officials say more than 600 are still on the island, many struggling to make ends meet, homesick, and stranded. Authorities have asked the UN’s refugee office for help in dealing with the migrants.

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