Not So ‘Irie’ in Jamaica: Jamaica Frets Over Slowdown in Returning Islanders

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Stephen Batchelor, an 89-year-old returnee to gang-steeped Spanish Town, said former neighbors in the British city of Birmingham told him they are afraid to come back. They believe they will be targeted by criminals in Jamaica, where nearly everyone lives behind iron burglar bars installed on windows and doors.

“It seems to me that the interest in returning home has mostly faded,” Batchelor said, standing by his bungalow’s front gate where last year two thieves robbed him of his monthly pension packet.

The good news for Jamaica is that homicides and other major crimes have been going down since 2010, when an anti-gang crackdown got started. For 2012, police reported 1,087 homicides, the lowest number in nine years. National Security Minister Peter Bunting says the island aims to reduce crime to “First World levels” by 2017, when he hopes to have a maximum of just 321 killings.

For now, Jamaica still has an eye-popping violent crime rate. When Chicago, with roughly the same population as Jamaica, chalked up 506 homicides last year, the bloodshed put the city at the center of the U.S. debate over guns. Jamaica’s has had 1,000-plus killings every year since 2004.

Perhaps nowhere is there more at stake than in Mandeville, where the rolling hills are dotted with stately homes owned by returned Jamaicans, including mansions with secret gardens and ornate fountains.

On a recent morning, the Pottingers met with other former British residents who have formed an association for companionship and safety. They reminisced about the long-ago challenges that confronted them when they first went to the “Mother Country” of England some 50 years ago.

But when the conversation turned to their retirement in Jamaica, member David Fyffe’s face turned sour. Having come back to his homeland, he still has to deal with alienation and hostility — this time from envious countrymen who look upon him as a moneyed foreigner ripe for exploitation.

“The homes of returning residents are robbed when they go to church, robbed when they go on vacation. There are strong attempts to cheat and defraud. Yes, there has been a decline in Jamaica and returning residents can be a target,” said Fyffe, nearly 70, who worked on the British railways for years.

The group of senior citizens rattled off a litany of safety measures large and small: Always keep your car windows up in traffic. Only deal with police officers you trust. Install closed-circuit television monitoring. Don’t dawdle at your front gate. Nearly ripe bananas and plantains must be concealed from street view or they’ll be stolen.

Yet, they say Jamaica is still a good place to live. Many of them enjoy support networks of family and friends and love being back on the island where they grew up, no matter how much it’s changed.

Pottinger said she never had any intention of staying overseas.

“None of us went to England and thought they would stay for any longer than five years. We thought the place was paved with gold — you’d go and get our money and you’d come back home,” she said, grinning at the memory.

(Photo: AP)

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