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CARIBBEAN (UK Overseas Territories), in particular: British Virgin Islands

Judicial CP - March 1999

The Independent, London, 18 March 1999

Welcome to Britain. But Cayman islanders say it's better at home

By Andrew Buncombe

"MOVE TO England?" laughed Marcie Chittenden, almost scornfully. "Why would anyone want to leave the Cayman Islands? It's beautiful here."

Mrs Chittenden has a good point. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, announced yesterday that residents of Britain's Overseas Territories are to be granted citizenship. As a result, the 150,000 people living in the last remnants of the empire can move to Britain and travel freely in the European Community. But as Mrs Chittenden explained so succinctly, the vast majority of Britain's overseas residents would not dream of moving.

"When I was a little girl, a lot of the men were seafarers," said Mrs Chittenden, 54, secretary of the Church of God in Georgetown, Grand Cayman, the largest of the three islands which make up the territory. "They would go all over the world and see all sorts, but when they came back they would say to me: 'There is no place like Cayman'."

The 36,000 or so islanders of the Caymans (the other two islands are Cayman Brac and Little Cayman) enjoy an enviable climate, situated as they are in the eastern Caribbean. There is an abundance of flora and fauna. Life is relaxed and calm.

But it is not simply the lifestyle that appeals. The Caymans, a large-scale centre for offshore finance, also enjoy a standard of living well above Britain's. Per capita, islanders have a GDP of around 20,000 compared to 14,500 in Britain.

"Britain is great -- the education I have had has been great, but I don't think that I would want to live here permanently," said Paul Byles, 32, of Georgetown, who is studying for a PhD in economics at the University of Surrey in Guildford. "There might be some people who would prefer the big-city lifestyle but I don't think there will be lots of people rushing to move."

The offer of citizenship does not come without a price. Announcing his White Paper yesterday, Mr Cook said Britain's 13 Overseas Territories (formerly the Dependent Territories) would have to modernise their human rights legislation.

Homosexuality is a crime in the five Caribbean territories - Anguilla, British Virgin Islands (BVI), Montserrat, the Caymans and the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) - although residents say it is enforced rarely. Corporal punishment remains on the statutes in the BVI (last handed down as a sentence in 1996) and Bermuda, where most locals believe it acts as a deterrent to hooliganism and juvenile crime. Capital punishment has theoretically been retained in Bermuda, though it has not been used since 1977 when two people were executed. The death penalty also remains on the statute for piracy and treason.

"The homosexuality law will be a big issue," Mrs Chittenden said. "What people do in the privacy of their own homes is not really an issue but they will not be wanting to condone an ungodly lifestyle."

Perhaps of even greater concern will be the requirement that the territories bring in new regulations for their burgeoning financial services industries. The White Paper notes that many of the systems are potential targets for money launderers and drug traffickers.

"Some Overseas Territories do not yet fully meet international standards," Mr Cook told the Commons yesterday. "The globalisation of international finance means that we cannot tolerate a weak link anywhere in the chain."

The governor of the BVI, Frank Savage, said yesterday he believed people were concerned that extra regulation could deter investors.

Some territory citizens may be keener than others to take up the offer of moving to Britain. While most residents of Bermuda are unlikely to be interested, up to 5,500 poverty-stricken residents of St Helena have long been campaigning for rights of citizenship.

Residents of Montserrat, devastated by volcanoes in 1996 and twice in 1997, may also be ready to leave.

But one thing Mr Cook made clear yesterday was that the arrangement was, sadly, not reciprocal: anyone fed up with life in Britain does not have the automatic right to up and move to warmer climes.

1999 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.

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Copyright Colin Farrell 1999