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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, June 22, 2024


Aug. 28, 2003 – The 1980 immigration order banning Rastafarians and others with dreadlocks and "hippie" hairstyles from entering the British Virgin Islands is no more.
Speaking before the territory's Legislative Council on Thursday, Chief Minister D. Orlando Smith formally announced the repeal by the government's Executive Council of the so-called "Rasta Law."
Thursday's announcement was hailed by both the powerful and plain folks on the other side of Sir Francis Drake Channel, with one St. Thomas legislator saying it was high time the British territory considered its visitors' character instead of the way they wear their hair.
Smith told B.V.I. lawmakers that officials could no longer identify people as Rastafari by looking at their hair. Further, he said, the territory had run afoul of international human rights standards by forcing people with long hair or dreadlocks to obtain special permission to enter the country from the Chief Minister's Office.
"It is no longer possible to tell who is or is not a Rasta or hippie based on hairstyle," he said. "And in any event, as a member of the global community, the British Virgin Islands were in contravention of a number of international conventions."
Smith continued, directing his remarks to Vivian Inez Archibald, speaker of the 15th Legislative Council: "I am here … to report, Madam Speaker, the Executive Council took a decision… to revoke Section 23 (1) of the Immigration and Passport Ordinance, thereby lifting the ban on Rastafarians and hippies into the territory without receiving prior special permission."
Section 23 of the ordinance declared hippies and Rastafarians "undesirable."
However, Smith noted that provisions remain in place for immigration officers to deny entry to "any undesirable person."
Residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands and elsewhere with personal experience had long taken issue with how the ban on "undesirables" was applied.
One St. Thomas school teacher recalled how an 8-year-old third grader had to get special permission to enter the B.V.I. on a class trip.
The late Gov. Alexander A. Farrelly once related how a Jamaican barrister had been denied entry because of his dreadlocks.
And B.V.I. public information officer Bernard Green Skelton cited the case of a production crew member for the musical group Morgan Heritage being kept out as the band was traveling to perform at an event in the territory.
"We were getting a lot of bad P.R. from outside," Skelton said. "Various people were speaking out on it." The Rasta Law even came in for criticism on the U.S. syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," Skelton said.
St. Croix labor leader Terrence "Positive" Nelson recalled how he had to obtain a letter of permission from the Chief Minister's Office in order to attend a conference. "It definitely was a discriminatory type of legislation," he said. He had to "call ahead to Immigration and to some department in order to get permission, and they would fax me a letter, and I would to have to state my purpose for being in the British Virgin Islands."
He termed the repeal of the law "a step in the right direction."
St. Thomas resident Lucien Samuel Jr. said he isn't sure how the change will affect him personally, since he has only crossed the channel once. But he said many of his Rastafari friends have family in the British Virgins, and the repeal will make life easier for them. "I think it's about time to open the gates … so we can entwine and keep the culture alive," he said.
Smith in his remarks Thursday noted that the Legislative Council had passed a resolution to repeal the order back in 1999. Skelton had no explanation as to why it took the Executive Council four years to formalize that decision, but he pointed to a change of government in the last elections and said that repeal of the Rasta Law was one of the things politicians promised the electorate.
Skelton also pointed to the results of a public opinion poll showing that 86 percent of the population favored repeal.
He said the last big public push for the change began last year when a B.V.I. Rastafarian cultural organization staged a march to the government's administrative complex on Tortola during a celebration of the birth of Haile Selassie. Association members presented a petition to government authorities asking for a change in the law.
The repeal comes at a time when relations between the British and U.S. Virgin Islands are strained because of an altogether different matter — the seizure by B.V.I. authorities of several boats from outside the territory for alleged fishing law violations.
At one point the Turnbull administration hired a Tortola law firm to represent the owners of two U.S.-owned sportfishing boats that had been seized by B.V.I. authorities. The owner and captain of one of those boats are scheduled to go to trial on illegal fishing charges on Sept. 5. Charges dating from last fall are pending against two St. Thomas fishermen.
Sen. Louis Hill has been asking Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to revive an old joint territorial commission to foster better relations between the two territories. On Thursday, Hill called the change in immigration law long overdue. "I think it is a very good thing," he said. "I never did really, fully understand the reason why the British Virgin Islands had implemented that law in the first place."

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