Jamaicans abandon their troubled island home in a mounting tide

A mass exodus of Jamaicans from their homeland is causing deep concern here. More than 1 percent of Jamaica's population -- some 30,000 people -- left the island permanently in 1979.

And already in 1980, the picture is the same. Jamaicans are leaving at the rate of about 2,500 a month.

For most of this century, Jamaicans have left in small numbers for Britain and canada, and more recently for the United States. But the flow was moderate before the 1970s. Now it amounts to a "monumental tide," as Kingston's Daily Gleaner, the leading paper here, termed it.

The tide is evident at the US consular offices of Oxford Street in the uptown New Kingston area, where there are always long lines of visa applicants. And it is also evident at Norman Manley International Airport, where Air Canada, Air Jamaica, and American Airlines take dozens of departing Jamaicans to the US and Canada daily.

Government officials here admit that the rate of exodus may well be increasing this year, as economic conditions worsen.

Consumer shortages, food riots, and growing unemployment are part of this worsening, leaving many Jamaicans deeply concerned about their future. Many say "lack of opportunity" is the key factor when they leave.

The whole fabric of island society is affected by the exodus. Doctors, architects, managers, skilled tradespeople, and others are seeking a better life away from Jamaica.

Finance Minister Eric Bell admits emigration is one of the government's "biggest problems." He notes that it is taking vital "middle management" people off the island -- men and women who are not necessarily as skilled as others who left earlier or who were owners of businesses, but simply people worried about their children's futures and the island's political, economic, and social situation.

Their departures, he says, have "damaged" the society and the economy "very badly."

And now it is not only the skilled and middle-management people, but also unskilled workers. It is difficult for the unskilled to leave the island legally, but "quite a few are going abroad illegally," says an official in the Economy Ministry. "Some, of course, go on temporary work visas to the United States and do not come back."

Some of these people are able to adjust their status once in the US. Last year, nearly 5,000 Jamaicans took up US residence this way. Another 15,000 got permanent residency status at the US consulate in Kingston. The US government's quota of 20,000 Jamaicans was filled for the year by these methods.

Another 7,000 Jamaicans went to Canada, joining a large group of their countrymen already there. The remaining 3,000 or so went to other Caribbean islands and other countries, including Britain, although Britain's closed-door policy on West Indians kept the number to a trickle.

No one here will estimate how many "illegals" have left.

But there are some figures -- guesses at best -- suggesting that as many as half a million Jamaicans have gone to the US illegally. Some have been in the US illegally since the 1940s. The number entering this way swells each year.

The tide of Jamaicans leaving the island has reached the point that government officials now admit more than half the 4.4 million Jamaicans in the world today live elsewhere -- that the 2.1 million Jamaicans still on the island could drop below 2 million by the mid-1980s, if not sooner.

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