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Last Updated: Friday, 20 August, 2004, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
US turns up heat on volcano refugees
By Damian Fowler
BBC, New York

Everson Farrell
Everson Farrell has established a home and a business in the US
It has been seven years since Everson Farrell arrived in New York, a refugee from the devastating volcano that destroyed his home on the small Caribbean island of Montserrat.

In this corner of the Bronx, Mr Farrell rebuilt his life from scratch. These days he has a thriving business, a fiancee and four children, three of them born here.

"I'm fitting into this society," he says, gesturing proudly towards the garage and bodyshop he established which is adorned with his country's flag.

But now his new American life is in jeopardy, and this time it is not an act of God that threatens him.

After being dormant for centuries the volcano started erupting in 1995. Thousands of people fled Montserrat, mostly to Britain, which is still the colonial power of the country, and other surrounding islands.

But 292 refugees, including Everson, eventually came to the United States where they were given "temporary protected status", meaning they could live and work here until the threat subsided.

But recently the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stunned this small group of Montserratians by revoking their temporary status and ordering them to leave by the end of February 2005. Ironically, it wants them out precisely because the situation has not improved.

It declared that volcanic eruptions are "not likely to cease in the foreseeable future. Therefore it no longer constitutes a temporary disruption of living conditions that temporarily prevents Montserrat from adequately handling the return of its nationals."

It has taken a month for this community to react to the declaration. But this week the Montserrat refugees are meeting in New York and Boston, where most of them live, to plan a strategy.

'Heartless action'

At the heart of this plan is a bill that would convert the 292 Montserrat refugees to permanent residents. It is being sponsored by Congressman Major Owens, a Democratic representative from Brooklyn.

Volcano erupts in Montserrat, 1995
The volcano destroyed the southern part of Montserrat
Earlier in August Congressman Owens expressed his outrage with the DHS decision.

"This is a heartless action and a blatant disregard for human life. There is a real anti-immigrant sentiment that governs the Bush administration when it comes to particular areas of the world and the Montserrat case is just one example," he said on his website.

Since the Montserratians started their lobbying efforts, they've garnered support from politicians and newspapers across the country, including the Washington Post which called the decision "absurd and cruel".

'Not permanent'

But the Department of Homeland Security defended its decision as being in keeping with the letter of the law.

"The fact is, temporary protected status is not meant to be a permanent solution," said William Strassberger, a spokesman for the government agency.

As an example, he points to the fact that Bosnians returned home after the war in the former Yugoslavia, and other foreign nationals have always returned after the crisis in question abated.

Marian O'Garro, with daughter Zanyl
To think that you have to uproot and leave everything again, it's heartbreaking
Marian O'Garro, with daughter Zanyl
Advocates for the refugees are in effect asking the government for compassion, arguing that they can't go home again.

The Soufriere Hill's volcano destroyed the southern two-thirds of Montserrat, burying everything in volcanic rubble and ash.

"This [decision] is not a natural disaster like the volcano when you had to run," said Vera Weekes, the assistant director of the Caribbean Research Center at Medgar Evers College at City University of New York.

"But here there's no disaster that means you have to be thrown out like a terrorist or you're really of no value. And that is a burning shame."

One solution suggested by the government is for the refugees to move to England, where many already have family.

That's little consolation to Marian O'Garro and her 12-year-old daughter, Zanyl, who lost everything in the volcano and have now settled in New York.

"Who are we going to England to live with?" said Ms O'Garro.

"After seven years this is home. My mother is here, my sister is here and my two kids are here."

"To think that you have to uproot and leave everything again, it's very heartbreaking."

Ash rains down on Montserrat
13 Jul 03  |  Americas
Volcano teaches deadly lessons
19 Feb 99  |  Science/Nature


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