Blunkett imposes visa rule on all Jamaican visitors

Ian Burrell,Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 09 January 2003 01:00 GMT

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The Jamaican high commissioner expressed her disappointment yesterday after David Blunkett imposed a visa requirement on thousands of visitors to Britain from the Caribbean island.

British ministers assured the Jamaican government the restriction was an immigration measure but the announcement will be widely regarded as a response to growing fears over drug and gun-related crime.

Customs and police chiefs have pressed hard for a visa system to limit movements of so-called Yardie gangsters who travel between the two countries, often on false passports.

The Jamaican government has argued that visa restrictions on its nationals are unnecessary and has co-operated in a bilateral programme to crack down on the criminals.

But Mr Blunkett said 150 Jamaican visitors had absconded every month during the first half of 2002 and 1,233 Jamaicans had been turned away by immigration officials in the six weeks before Christmas.

"This is a real problem and the consequences of this abuse are felt mainly by genuine visitors from Jamaica," the Home Secretary said. "I understand some will have concerns about these new arrangements but effective border controls are an essential part of proper immigration control."

Dr Tony Sewell, a columnist on The Voice newspaper, said: "It's obvious there's a link between the whole issue of gun crime, drugs and illegal immigration, and a means of communicating that is [to introduce] visas. The Government needs to be seen to be doing something."

Maxine Roberts, the Jamaican high commissioner in London, voiced concerns that the media had linked last week's shooting of two girls in Birmingham to Jamaicans, yet the perpetrators were likely to be British-born.

She said the Jamaican government had lobbied hard against what it believed was the unnecessary imposition of a visa system. The two countries have co-operated closely on a programme of security measures designed to fight crime, including the exchange of specialist police officers and provision at Jamaican airports of new drug-detection equipment.

Ms Roberts said: "We felt we had good relations with the UK and, as a Commonwealth country, we would not have had to have this imposed on us. It's a big disappointment."

The high commissioner said Jamaica would press British ministers to reverse its decision. According to the Home Office, 55,600 Jamaicans came to Britain in 2001 and 3,340 (6 per cent) had to be turned back because they could not satisfy immigration officials they had legitimate reason for entering the country.

The visa system was not intended to prevent genuine travellers being admitted. Mr Blunkett said he was worried by the number of Jamaican children who went missing after coming to Britain.

Last year, British Airways recorded 1,202 unaccompanied minors had arrived at Gatwick airport from the Caribbean island but only 592 returned.

The visas cost £36 and George Ruddock, UK managing director of Jamaica's The Gleaner newspaper, said the fee might inhibit people from rural areas of the island from visiting British relatives.

Mr Ruddock added: "The visa system will help to differentiate between the people who have genuine reasons to come to the UK ... as opposed to those who come to get involved in the drug trade."

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