Jamaica’s Growing Violence Threatens Retiree Economy

Joel Millman, Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2010

Two elderly pensioners in this mountaintop village joined hundreds of Jamaicans with a grisly fate: expatriates who spent their working lives abroad, then moved home only to be killed.

Jamaica has the highest homicide rate in the hemisphere, and retired returnees from all over the globe are feeling targeted. WSJ’s Joel Millman reports.

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This verdant island has one of the higher homicide rates in the world with 62 murders per 100,000 residents in 2009. Rising violence is an issue throughout the Caribbean, largely fueled by narcotics trafficking, according to a 2007 joint report by the United Nations and the World Bank.

Jamaican criminals sometimes target returnees, waiting until their monthly pension checks arrive from abroad before striking. One of the gangs preying on the returnees was led by police officers.

The number of returning retirees–1,170 last year–has dropped in half since the 1990s. That’s a big deal in Jamaica, which counts on retirees and their money to help pump up its troubled economy.

Some 2 million Jamaicans live abroad, nearly as many as the 2.7 million who live on the island. Their exodus began in 1946 and continues today.

The Jamaican diaspora stretches from North American cities such as Miami, New York and Toronto to big British cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham. Many of the hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans living abroad long planned to stretch their modest pensions by moving back to their much cheaper native country.

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In addition, crime hasn’t stopped the growth of Jamaica’s tourism industry, which generated over $1.9 billion last year, and is on track to surpass that this year.

Still, crime news is widely disseminated among expats, and it causes many U.S. Jamaicans to rethink their retirement plans, says Robert DeSouza, a Jamaican immigrant whose Trans-Continental Express Shippers of Queens, N.Y., specializes in moving Jamaicans. He handles about 50 moves to Jamaica a year, he says, down from over 200 a year in the 1990s.

The robbers are “targeting returned residents,” Mr. DeSouza says. He says he knows of two elderly couples who moved home to Jamaica then fled back, one to Georgia and one to Florida.

Many expat retirees, however, say they don’t have the money to move back to the U.S. or U.K. Unable to sell in a depressed local market, they instead endure a kind of silent captivity.

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Another potential threat to returnees: their own families. Distant cousins, barely known to retirees, sometimes see returned residents as bank accounts to tap. Ethlyn Hyman-Dixon, a 69-year-old returnee from England, was stabbed to death in 2008 by a nephew who was convicted of the slaying last year.

Boxer Trevor Berbick, the last man to beat Muhammad Ali in the ring, was hacked to death in Portland Parish by a nephew, later convicted of the murder. Mr. Berbick was 54.

Crime has hit a retirement community called Southaven in the town of Yallahs, about 15 miles east of Kingston, that caters to returned expats. With its broad boulevards and white-washed stucco walls, Southaven could be any seniors’ district in Arizona or Florida–except that many homes are abandoned.

“People are scared. They’re leaving,” says Cynthia Edwards, 71, who bought a place in Yallahs with her husband in 2005. {snip}

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Returnees say they often are targeted by squatters. Last year Jamaica’s Ministry of Water and Housing formed a special anti-squatters unit to deal with the estimated 600,000 Jamaicans living on land where they have no legal right. However, unit leader Basil Forsythe says he is only allowed to go after squatters living on public lands. Elderly returning residents, he says, “have to go through courts on their own. I advise them to engage a lawyer.”

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Jamaica tracks statistics on its returnees, who get generous breaks on customs duties and other fees when repatriating household goods and cars.

Back in 1994, almost 2,600 retired Jamaicans returned to their country. The number of returnees dropped more than half by the early 2000s. It has remained relatively flat every since, even though the number of Jamaicans at retirement age abroad has risen substantially. Just in the U.S., almost 200,000 Jamaican immigrants are now over the age of 60, up from 82,000 Jamaican immigrants who either were retired or were approaching retirement 10 years ago.

For decades, Jamaican governments have counted on money from expats working in England or North America. Eighty percent of the country’s college graduates work abroad, according to a World Bank study.

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