Cabinet spokesperson Melford Nicholas said the government may have to repatriate visitors from West Africa as they announce a major stumbling block in their pursuit of airline connectivity between the African continent and the Caribbean.
In its first post-Cabinet briefing since being re-elected to office, the government said it had decided to temporarily halt all chartered flights emanating from West Africa.
With reported cases of African visitors struggling to find accommodations and some claiming they are only in the country en route elsewhere, Minister Nicholas said the government was looking to organise flights for their return.
“It is recognised that there are a number of persons who had come on earlier flights who are still in Antigua and may need to be returned to their respective jurisdictions.
“We will obviously have to arrange for an aircraft to arrive to take those persons who are here back home in the coming days and weeks,” Nicholas said.
On December 28, Observer media reported that chartered flights organised by Abuja-based FastFlyLinks Travel & Tours were transporting persons including Cameroonians here for US$5,000 per person–the average Cameroonian earns 460,000 Central African CAF francs a month, equating to around US$750.
Some have said they are escaping a harrowing situation in Cameroon where a civil war has been raging for the last six years.
The minister conceded that some of the West Africans may have genuine reason for leaving their homeland.
When asked if the government had concerns about their safety if repatriated, Nicholas replied, “If there are Cameroonians who have found themselves here and are in distress and have need for consideration of what you just mentioned, then I am sure we have mechanisms in place to deal with those.”
He confirmed that none had so far approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for consideration of asylum.
The Information Minister went on to further explain the government’s decision to suspend the charter flights.
“Antigua Airways, in order to establish the commercial viability of the route, arranged a few [chartered flights] and that came with clamour.
“What had transpired since was that their efforts was imitated by another operator who would have arranged another charter outside of the knowledge of the government,” Minister Nicholas said.
He said that some charter operators were using Antigua and Barbuda as a “stepping-stone” and, therefore, the government had to suspend the routes from Africa to Antigua.
Minister Nicholas called this situation an abuse of the government’s intention.
“If that opportunity has now lent itself to abuse, we certainly have to do the responsible thing and to curtail the use of the chartered flights to be able to ensure that, once we have established the routes properly,” he said.
Antigua Airways, which was a partnership between the Antiguan government and Nigerian investor, Marvellous Mike, has been under much scrutiny since its initial announcement in July 2022 and the first flight landing in November 2022.
The airline company once touted by the government as a boost for regional connectivity to the African continent had not been in compliance with Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA) rules, according to Cabinet notes.
However, Information Minister Melford Nicholas said that it was not the case that Antigua Airways had contravened ECCAA rules.
“It’s still not known to us that Antigua Airways has done any violation but…below the radar, another entity would have organised a charter with the intent of using Antigua as a trans-migration pathway into South America…and so that is the reason we have closed the option for any chartered flights like that,” he added.
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