August 16, 2018

On July 27, Jamaica’s Senate unanimously approved a new extension of the Emergency Power Resolution for Saint James Parish, following a similar vote by the House of Representatives. The vote extends the state of public emergency that has been in effect in Saint James Parish since January to Nov. 1. The extension comes due to the positive results the policy has shown, and the safer environment it has created in the region. Saint Catherine North, an area within Saint Catherine Parish, is also under state of emergency since March. 

Why the State of Emergency was Implemented

Montego Bay, the largest city in Saint James Parish, is the main tourist destination in Jamaica, with close to two million visitors a year, most of them international. Tourism represents a third of Jamaica’s entire GDP, which makes the area a key part of the Jamaican economy.

With the temporary policy, Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ administration aims to reduce the rising crime rates Saint James has seen in recent years and avoid an ensuing reduction in tourism due to violence. The administration has specifically highlighted the importance of protecting visitors to the parish, and with the state of emergency, hundreds of additional police and military personnel have been deployed. Despite having a population of only around 180,000 residents, Saint James had the highest number of murders among all of Jamaica’s 14 parishes over the past two years, with the killings increasing from 210 in 2015, to 269 in 2016, and 335 in 2017.

The Impact on Crime and Travel

So far, some statistics show the state of emergency has been a success. From the beginning of 2018 to July 21, 55 murders were reported in Saint James Parish – down from 168 murders over the same period in 2017. Authorities project that fewer than 100 murders will be reported in 2018, compared to more than 200 over each of the past three years.

In the face of this positive trend, local and national authorities – including opposition members of Congress – have overwhelmingly supported extensions to the state of emergency, in May and July, and business leaders in Montego Bay have celebrated the improved security climate. Large resort companies have made new investments in the area in 2018, and two international airlines opened new direct flights into Sangster International Airport (MBJ) in July. Through the first half of the year, tourism in Jamaica overall grew by 5.4 percent, compared to 2017.

Negative Consequences

Although the overall result of the state of emergency seems positive, there are several reasons for concern. Human rights activists have warned about potential excesses from security forces, especially if the state of emergency continues to be prolonged. With the policy in place, some basic rights of the population are suspended, and authorities are able to search property and arrest suspects without the need for a warrant. Although the opposition has supported extensions of the state of emergency, its leaders have warned they will not do so indefinitely and have raised concerns about a lack of improvement in the security situation in the rest of the country. Excluding Saint James parish, in 2018 there had been 703 murders in Jamaica by the end of July, compared to 716 during the same time period in 2017.

What to Expect Next

Crime has been one of Jamaica’s major problems in the past decades, with one the world’s highest murder rates in recent years. The state of emergency in Saint James parish, and in parts of Saint Catherine parish, is proving to be an effective, yet temporary, solution to critical risks. However, due to the large investments it requires, and the limitation of the population’s rights, it is not likely to be a permanent policy to fight crime. By the end of October, when the latest extension of the state of emergency will be nearing its November 1 deadline, Jamaica’s government should have in place a set of proposals to reduce crime in Saint James without the need for special resources and suspension of basic rights.

Travelers heading to Jamaica should understand their rights. While the impact on international visitors has been minimal, travelers must be warned about the special powers security forces currently have in Saint James and parts of Saint Catherine. Travelers should also expect to see heightened security near tourist areas. However, overall, the state of emergency has made the regions more secure for both visitors and residents.

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