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More transparency demanded on St. Maarten harbour finances

THE HAGUE--The Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament on Wednesday demanded more transparency on the finances of government-owned companies like St. Maarten Harbour Group of Companies and Curaçao utilities company Aqualectra.

Parliament's Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations did so in a general debate with Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk on the control tasks of Committee for Financial Supervision CFT.

CFT should weigh the financial risks that government-owned companies may pose more heavily in the process of scrutinising the budget of Curaçao and St. Maarten. "CFT must position itself more strongly, especially when there are risks," said Member of the Second Chamber André Bosman of the liberal democratic VVD party, on whose request the debate was held. Plasterk agreed.

"One's neck-hair should rise when I mention Aqualectra or St. Maarten Harbour Company. CFT should never approve the budget of Curaçao and St. Maarten or a request for a loan, should there be no transparency about the finances of these companies. CFT should instruct the government-owned companies to hand over the financial documents," said Bosman.

Bosman said it was positive that Minister Plasterk and CFT wanted transparency of the government-owned companies. But, added, "I especially want St. Maarten to come to the conclusion that this transparency is very important." He added that St. Maarten's Parliament should demand this transparency as well.

According to Bosman, the financial situation of the government-owned companies has to be taken along to determine whether the countries comply with the requirements of a solid budget as stated in the Kingdom Law on Financial Supervision. "Even International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Audit Chambers of the countries are worried about the lack of transparency and annual figures," he said.

"I have comprehension for the countries in transition and the fact that this rule has not been lived up to since day one, but we are four years down the road and transparency hasn't increased. The St. Maarten harbour is still a closed bastion where the flow of money is untraceable. That puts good governance in St. Maarten at risk," said Bosman.

Plasterk said he shared the concerns about the lack of financial transparency of government-owned companies, but added that CFT could still approve the budget and loans. He said the finances of the government-owned companies were merely an element in CFT's decision on the country's financial situation. "But, CFT is increasingly taking the government-owned companies along in its findings and that is a good thing," he said.

Both Bosman and his colleague Roelof van Laar of the Labour Party PvdA expressed concerns about the collection of taxes in St. Maarten, which has not been up to par. "St. Maarten's economy has grown, but this is not reflected in the tax revenues," said Van Laar, who called on the minister and CFT to keep a close tab on this.

Plasterk said he shared the concerns about the tax collection. He said that CFT had been informed of the Dutch concerns in this area. The issue of tax collection will be taken along in the process to improve integrity in the St. Maarten Government. "Everything starts with integrity in government," he said.

Financial supervision is a good thing, says Plasterk

THE HAGUE--Financial supervision has its advantages and if it were up to Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk a system to supervise the public finances of Curaçao and St. Maarten would remain in effect a while longer.

Plasterk stated this in a general debate with the Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament on Wednesday. The topic of the meeting, which was requested by Member of the Second Chamber André Bosman of the liberal democratic VVD party, was the Committee for Financial Supervision CFT and its control tasks for Curaçao and St. Maarten.

Plasterk reconfirmed that the Kingdom Law on Financial Supervision for Curaçao and St. Maarten would be evaluated in the general exercise to evaluate the constitutional relations that went into effect on October 10, 2010, when Curaçao and St. Maarten attained country status and Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba became public entities of the Netherlands.

The financial supervision law, aimed at preventing new debts of the countries after the Netherlands took over their debts in 2010, has a temporary character, said Plasterk. But, he added, "I can imagine that it would be good not to get rid of it too soon, because it has advantages for the islands."

The minister said a "more flexible arrangement" was "one of the options" for the future if the countries complied with all the requirements of the financial supervision law for a number of consecutive years.

Plasterk stated this in response to Member of the Second Chamber Roelof van Laar of the Labour Party PvdA. "You speak of financial supervision as if it is permanent. But that is not the objective of the Kingdom Law on Financial Supervision," said Van Laar, who spoke of a "growth model." He pointed out that the new countries were still developing and getting used to their new tasks and responsibilities.

Plasterk said it was "no shame" to be under financial supervision. "Strange eyes compel," he said, adding that the supervision had a positive effect on Curaçao's and St. Maarten's financial management.

The law also has advantages for the islands, because they can borrow money for capital investments with the Netherlands standing guarantee once CFT has given its blessing. Curaçao and St. Maarten already have made use of this possibility.

Plasterk pointed out that even the Netherlands was under financial supervision of Brussels, the European Union. He said only Aruba, where the national debt had doubled in a few years, had no financial supervision. He announced that the (legal) basis for the advisory role of CFT to analyse Aruba's 2015 draft budget would be discussed in the Kingdom Council of Ministers this Friday.

Traffickers’ boat left St. Maarten, undocumented immigrants missing

By Fiona Van Kampen

PHILIPSBURG--A group of undocumented immigrants is "missing" after their boat set off from French St. Martin. The boat is said to have run out of fuel, after which it was found by the US Coast Guard in the waters of the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

It was initially believed the boat and captain had been taken by the BVI authorities. However, Royal Virgin Island Police Service (RVIPF) spokeswoman Diane Drayton said that although the boat was in RVIPF's possession, the passengers had been taken by the US Coast Guard by the time RVIPF found the boat.

"I have been informed that the US Coast Guard did contact the RVIPF Marine Unit about a boat in distress with 37 passengers onboard in BVI waters," Drayton said in an invited statement. "However, the occupants of the boat, which was in a dangerous condition, had been relocated by the US Coast Guard by the time the Marine Officers arrived. The empty vessel was later towed to the RVIPF Marine Base. We have no further knowledge on the whereabouts of the occupants from the boat."

Two separate sources have stated that all Haitian immigrants have been returned to Haiti by the US Coast Guard. A Dominicano was traced back to Puerto Rico, where he is said to be in custody in San Juan, awaiting deportation, and a Cuban man is missing.

St. Maarten

An active human-trafficking trade is still ongoing and St. Maarten is used as a transfer point to take refugees to the US, a source stated. Multiple ships are thought to sail during weeks when the sea is calm and the Coast Guard is not around. "It's big business," she said.

The source said the missing boat, which according to her had some 27 refugees on board, including a number of children, had left Marina Royale in Marigot around sunset only a week and a half ago. The boat, which was en route to St. Thomas via Tortola, never arrived.

No official news has been received about the fate of the undocumented immigrants onboard, other than the notification from RVIPF spokeswoman Drayton. Family members of one Haitian man have heard from him that the group was picked up by the US Coast Guard. The other Haitians and the Cuban man have not been heard from since.

Family and friends

This has raised great concern with the friends and relatives of 51-year-old Cuban Pedro Manuel Peralta Nuñoz, who was onboard along with a Dominicano man and the Haitians.

The Dominicano is said to have sent out a message since the incident saying he is being held by the authorities in San Juan, and a relative of the Haitian man who was onboard has heard that the boat ran out of fuel, after which the US Coast Guard ship took the immigrants back to Haiti. The girlfriend of a Haitian man said this after receiving a message from her boyfriend stating he was back in Haiti.

The group of Haitians, most of whom were said not to be carrying passports, were said to have been dumped on the coast of Cap Haitian, a four-hour drive from Port-au-Prince. They were said not to be carrying any cash, but a bare minimum of possessions and no passports. Children were said to be amongst the group.

Despite the fact that none of these statements have been confirmed by the authorities, friends and relatives of the people onboard are hopeful that their relatives have not actually drowned, as they first feared. However, their quest for information has gone unanswered, as the authorities in the US, who are said to have taken the immigrants, have failed to confirm the details of the incident to the relatives.

Background

The story goes back further. The source, a local woman who provided assistance to Peralta Nuñoz when he was in St. Maarten, tells her friend's story.

"Pedro is a 51-year-old Cuban. His partner is American. He wanted to live with his partner, but could not get a visa for the US. Some four months ago, he travelled to Antigua, one of the only islands where Cubans don't need a visa," the source said, before adding that Antigua is commonly used by Cubans as a starting point from which to go to the US.

"Pedro paid a few thousand dollars to the traffickers, who came from St. Maarten with a boat. There were some 20 people on the boat. It was a basic boat, with no inside space and no toilets. The boat didn't seem suitable for so many people on a long-distance trip."

The source said the ship had stopped in St. Maarten instead of going directly to St. Thomas, which is US territory. "The refugees were told there was a problem with the engines and they would continue in a few days," she said.

She then told how the group of Cubans were taken to a ramshackle house in the Dutch Quarter area. "They were due to sail out a few times, even up to the point when they were in the boat, but every time they had to turn back, either because the Coast Guard was on patrol or because the sea was too rough, and in one case because the engines failed again."

The group of Cubans were looked after by people in the community. "They had no money, no food, nothing," said the source, who became friends with Pedro after repeatedly giving him food.

Immigration

A few weeks after arriving in St. Maarten, a group of the Cubans was stopped by the police, who were searching at that time for a group of Venezuelans who had committed a robbery. The Cubans, who were not suspected of any crime, were handed over to the Immigration Department, which gave them temporary papers with a requirement to report to the department on a weekly basis.

Police spokesman Inspector Ricardo Henson recalled the incident. "We picked up some seven or eight Cubans and handed them over to the Immigration Department. That's all I know about it," he said. Peralta Nuñoz was one of the group.

"Pedro said that the St. Maarten Immigration Department treated him well," said his friend. "But after some three months on the island, Pedro was getting desperate. He had no money, no food and no extra clothes, and was living in squalor. I even let him stay with me for a week or so."

She said her friend had lost trust in his trafficker after the engines of the boat broke down again, forcing the boat back to shore. "Pedro basically told the human trafficker he didn't trust he would ever make it to the States," she added.

Second attempt

Through contacts in the Haitian community, Peralta Nuñoz found a new trafficker, who offered him a place on a boat leaving on Saturday, November 29. He accepted the place, despite knowing that once again he would be travelling in a simple boat with two engines, no shade, with the sides of the boat not high enough to protect passengers in rough seas, no inside space, and not knowing how many people would be onboard.

"Pedro was worried for his safety, but he wanted to reach his goal. He came to ask me if I could get him a life-vest," said the source. "By that time, I felt we had become friends, so I got him a life-vest. I was concerned about him."

This second boat also had tried to sail out on a previous occasion. "They turned back because the sea was too rough," said the source. "At that time, there were two babies onboard. I don't know if they were on the trip on November 29."

Authorities

It is now a week and a half since the boat left and nothing has been heard from Pedro. His partner in the US tried to speak to the authorities in the British Virgin Islands after he read an online article stating the boat might have been seized there and the captain arrested, but was not given any information.

The partner also has contacted the US authorities in Puerto Rico. "The authorities of both countries wouldn't tell me anything. I am very worried about Pedro," he said. "The newspaper article I saw online was later removed. It said that a boat with its captain had been seized for trafficking near Tortola. But the article was later removed. I want to know: what happened to the immigrants?"

St. Maarten Immigration and Naturalisation Department Director Udo Aron did not have any information at hand, so he could not give any information about Peralta Nuñoz and the other Cubans. The BVI authorities said they had the boat, but had no knowledge of the people's whereabouts.

The US Coast Guard, when told of the circumstances, said they did take undocumented people back to their islands. "We call that repatriation," a spokesperson said. The Public Relations Department could not provide details about individual cases, but said it would look into the case. It also stated that Coast Guard ships had a United States Citizen and Immigration Service (US-CIS) officer on board who would decide whether someone would be "repatriated."

A US-CIS spokeswoman said: "If someone shows credible fear, they will be interviewed and a decision will be taken as to whether they can pursue a claim to seek asylum. If no credible fear is shown, they can be repatriated."

"Credible fear" means the fear of returning to one's country combined with fear of torture and persecution. The spokeswoman said she could not go into detail about individual cases and in this case information had to be obtained from the Coast Guard.

It is likely that the group indeed was picked up by the US Coast Guard, which may have returned the Haitians to Haiti. Questions would arise whether this type of action is legal, considering many of the Haitians were not carrying passports, and why, if found in BVI waters, were they not handed over to the BVI authorities?

There is no way to establish whether all immigrants who left St. Maarten were safe and accounted for at the time they were taken off their boat, and no way to establish whether all of them made it back home safely.

Another important question, if indeed the US authorities have taken the immigrants, is: What happened to Pedro Manuel Peralta Nuñoz? That is something his partner, friends and many others are keen to have answered.

Youth Care Centre has opened its doors

page3d173CAY BAY--The eagerly anticipated Miss Lalie Youth Care Centre was officially opened December 10 by Minister of Justice Dennis Richardson in the presence of a number of dignitaries, invited guests and members of the Meyers family, in commemoration of Eulalie Meyers who the Centre is named after. The Centre is set to start receiving youths as of next week.

The modern Cay Bay building had been designed as a boarding school-type facility meant for foster care, and was then restructured for use as a closed facility for boys ages 12 to 18, who are to be detained whilst receiving counselling, treatment, guidance and education, in order to enable them to have the best possible chance of succeeding in society.

A closed institution, it provides 10 places for boys sentenced by the criminal court and another 10 for boys with severe behavioural issues who have not been sentenced but who have received a placement order by a civil court.

Until now, there has been no such facility available locally for this demographic, as explained by Angela Dekker of Dutch financing institution USONA who said that the lack of a youth rehabilitation centre was questioned over a decade ago by a Geneva committee during a conference on the Rights of the Child.

Team Leader Natasha Carty acted as Master of Ceremonies for the opening event, introducing various key decision makers and dignitaries, the Center's team comprising social and security workers, and guiding a tour of the facility.

The Centre was financed by the Ministry of Justice and USONA. However, the collaboration included efforts by Horizon Foundation in the Netherlands, Court of Guardianship (CoG), Ministry of Welfare, Ministry of General Affairs, the Police Force, the Prosecutor's Office, Foundation Judiciary Institutes Windward Islands and a diverse project team. Ron Verhaar was mentioned numerous times for his particular efforts in realising the project.

Key representatives of each of these entities were in attendance, including CoG Director Richelda Emmanuel and Acting Chief Prosecutor Karola van Nie who is also a member of the project team. Both individuals delivered short speeches. Caretaker Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams and Acting Governor Reynold Groeneveldt were amongst the dignitaries in attendance.

Minister Richardson said that the name Youth "Care" Centre was chosen after some deliberation, as opposed to "rehabilitation" or "detention" centre. "The focus is not on detention," although "naturally there are the aspects of a guarded community." He added that hopefully the project could serve as inspiration so that later 18-24 year olds could also have designated spaces away from a general prison population.

He said he called on the community to step up to the plate as well, in hopes that the youths could successfully return to school or work after receiving treatment. In the same respect, Emmanuel called on the community to "be ready for them with open arms."

Eulalie "Miss Lalie" Meyers, was described by Carty and her son, MP Frankie Meyers, as someone with strong faith, love, and persistence, and as someone who cared for the incarcerated in particular. Emmanuel commented that "Lalie was the first name to come up" with respect to naming the facility.

Sherry Hazel new head of Tax Administration

~Aims to enhance services to taxpayers ~

PHILIPSBURG--Sherry Hazel has been appointed Head of Government's Tax Administration for an indefinite period.

She assumed her new position as of November 1, taking over from former head Geert Bergsma. Hazel brings to the table some 20-years of experience in various functions at the Receivers Office including as Island Receiver from 2004 to 2010 and Receiver from 2010, when St. Maarten assumed its new constitutional status, to 2014. One of her primary goals in her new post is for the department to enhance the service offered to taxpayers and to enhance compliance.

Hazel has hit the ground running and has placed an employee from the Inspectorate's Administrative Department at the Receiver's Office to assist persons who visit the latter department, who may need the assistance of an Inspectorate staff. The Inspectorate staff member is readily available to assist clients and to provide them with information.

This new system was put in place as of December 1, and is expected to continue permanently on a rotational basis. This is expected to reduce the time taxpayers spend running from one department to the next.

"If a tax payer visits the Receivers Office for whatever reason and the assistance of the Inspectorate is required they will no longer need to leave the premises. The matter can be handled right there," Hazel told The Daily Herald at her new office at the Vineyard Building on Tuesday.

She said the results of this measure are already being seen. "The taxpayers who have experienced this are quite satisfied," she said.

Hazel said it is difficult to indicate the current compliance level in the country as there are persons who leave the island and fail to inform Tax Administration so assessments continue to be sent out to no avail. "This is why we have to continuously do foot patrol. We have to send people on the street for them to be able to locate the people who don't respond to their assessments. If we don't get any feedback from the taxpayers, the Audit Department has to go on the street.

"We have a compliance team that is busy now working under the auspices of the Audit Department, and they are busy going out on the street looking for people who haven't been their filing tax returns and getting them to do the necessary filing so that we can have assessments reduced to the real amounts that are owed."

Other areas of improvements being looked into for the future is the possibility of having the customer service representatives at the Tax Administration at the Vineyard Building also accept documents for the Receivers Office. Hazel said this category of worker is supposed to serve the Inspectorate and Receivers Office as both now fall under Tax Administration.

"We have to get away from the thinking that the Receiver's Office and Inspectorate of Taxes are separate. The whole organisation is Tax Administration and you have the different branches of the Tax Administration, which are Collection, Inspectorate and the Audit Department."

Hazel said in her function as Receiver she had witnessed the frustration of taxpayers first hand and decided to take on the challenge as Tax Administration Head as it would enable her to help iron out the kinks in the system and give her a chance to create positive change. "We need to become more efficient and productive, and then we can eliminate some of those challenges that exist. Sometimes there are computer glitches and we also need a new software system, but the goal is to get better."

She sees the Tax Administration as the "pillar" of St. Maarten's economy and stressed that its efficient functioning is very important. "Government is cash strapped. We need money. So it's for our own good to get more people involved. We have to get the non-compliant persons and the people who are operating in the so-called black market registered and get to know them so that we can collect from them as well and have them pay their fair share like everyone else, and then we can basically have a balanced budget. That is what we are striving for and government needs the money."

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