CARICOM’s 50th Anniversary gift to its citizens: freedom of movement, a step towards closer integration

Opinion Column by: Patrice Quesada, Coordinator for the Caribbean, International Organization for Migration (IOM) 

It is truly an historical decision. On 4 July 2023, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution, the Heads of State of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), under the Chairmanship of Dominica’s Honourable Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, announced a big step towards regional integration. In the words of Barbados’ Honourable Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, who holds responsibility for the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) in the CARICOM Quasi Cabinet, they have responded to what “every Caribbean citizen has wanted since we’ve had control of our destiny.” This major step forward is the decision to extend freedom of movement to all CARICOM nationals.  

Enabling citizens to freely move in the CSME has been a long-standing wish – one that has often been deemed too ambitious or unrealistic. But as the saying goes, " where there is a will, there is a way".   

By publicly taking the decision to sign a renewed agreement by 30 March 2024, the leaders of CARICOM have paved the way to become one of the most integrated regions in the world by allowing citizens to seek work or family reunification opportunities in other CARICOM countries. Currently under the CSME, just a few skills are recognized, and an often-complex process is required to receive and verify a skills certificate.  

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), at the request of CARICOM, is currently undertaking a study of the collection, management and analysis of free movement data within the CSME.  Activities are underway to engage CSME focal points to address the challenges in existing processes and find opportunities to improve the system to ensure it caters to the new free movement regime. 

The decision comes at an interesting juncture in the recent rich history of the Caribbean. From IOM’s assessment of the migratory context, one important economic game changer – with potential large social implications – has emerged with the emerging oil and gas industry in Guyana. As per our studies of labour needs, to accompany this large-scale transformation, it appears that labour migration will have to play an essential role to fuel the market with skilled and unskilled workers in all the sectors that will be directly and indirectly affected.   These would include, for instance, extraction, construction, housing, health and education.  How this massive labour need can be strategically managed to benefit the region as a whole is a defining question of the decade. Free movement can play a significant role in facilitating this process along with strategic education initiatives and fair and transparent labour agreements.   

Of course, the devil is in the details, and government lawyers and multiple stakeholders will need all the time they have ahead of the March deadline to iron out possible issues of contention.  

Consideration of how the Caribbean can capitalize on the opportunities ahead would be incomplete if we did not take into account the need for accurate, comparable and up to date data to support a robust evidence-based policy on free movement. As it is repeatedly acknowledged, the need for data in the Caribbean is one of the major accelerators identified to support the sustainable development of the Caribbean in all sectors – migration included. In this context, IOM is very pleased to be supporting CARICOM and its institutions in the process of developing a regional migration policy. Freedom of movement will be a defining feature of key policies to leverage migration’s potential to accelerate sustainable development by defining legal pathways, lowering the cost of remittances, better protecting people on the move, and mitigating the impact of climate change on displacement – all while using migration as a tool to support blue and green transformation of Caribbean economies.  

From witnessing the process of the OECS on their model contingent rights bill, this is certainly one area that will require the two institutions to share lessons-learned in terms of legislative development and implementation. To what extent spouses and immediate dependents of CARICOM nationals, who are not themselves from CARICOM, can benefit from the contingent rights, is a key question for lawmakers to address. And how can this information be communicated and implemented in a consistent way across the CSME space. These policy decisions will affect individual and family choices on whether or not to migrate within the region. 

There are other sensitive issues that have hindered CARICOM from fully moving in the direction of freedom of movement. One such issue has been in relation to Haiti as a member of CARICOM. Given the current circumstances in the country, CARICOM Heads of Government have agreed to Haiti’s request for a derogation of the free movement agreement. While this is understandable in the present time, it is important to also take a keen look at how well-managed, safe and orderly migration between Haiti and the rest of CARICOM could provide and is already to some extent providing much-needed support to Haiti as the country grapples with domestic instability. From our own extensive experience at IOM we believe that labour migration agreements could also benefit countries in the Caribbean which are already experiencing labour shortages in some key sectors, like the agricultural, healthcare and construction sectors.  

In this context, security related matters should also not be underestimated. While the CARICOM countries, to the notable exception of Haiti, are not experiencing wide unrest, there have been growing concerns around criminal activities and the role of transnational criminal networks involved in the smuggling of weapons, drugs but also in smuggling of migrants and trafficking of persons. It is important to ensure that the tools and knowledge to detect ill-intended individuals, and to recognize and give protection to victims of trafficking, are available, whether or not these may be CARICOM citizens. IOM is committed to supporting these efforts to strengthen border management and protecting the individuals who may fall victim to criminal networks.  

While recognizing the historical significance of this decision, let us be sure to manage expectations, and see it for what it is: the beginning of a process.  The Prime Minister of The Bahamas has reminded citizens that The Bahamas is not a part of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and therefore the free movement of people does not apply to The Bahamas. In addition, as with previous experiences with CSME implementation, the Member States understand that the ratification, integration in national legislation and the implementation in each country, at each border point and in each public service, are where the decision will be truly translated into action and have a positive impact on their citizens. Adequate resources will need to be mobilized, an effort that IOM will eagerly support by raising the awareness on the promise of free movement within CARICOM and the tools and expertise required to make it work.  

What the CARICOM Heads of Government clearly saw when embarking in this regional policy process in 2019 is how intertwined the different dimensions of migration are and how a comprehensive approach, as promoted by the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (GCM) is required. Our wish is that freedom of movement for CARICOM citizens can quickly become an enabler of sustainable development.  

The decision to move toward full freedom of movement is a bold step taken by CARICOM Heads of Government, on the road to full regional integration. With strong collaboration, and evidence-based strategies rooted in the historical and cultural context of the Caribbean, well managed intra-regional migration has the potential to be a crucial factor in accelerating all the Sustainable Development Goals in the CARICOM region.

SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities