Britain Criticized Over Aid Response To Hurricane Irma

The British government has faced criticism for its response to the effects of Hurricane Irma on its Caribbean territories. Victims on the ground have joined domestic voices airing their concerns over what they perceive to be the slow mobilisation of British forces and limited financial aid sent to the affected islands.

Three of Britain’s fourteen overseas territories – Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands – are located in the Caribbean, and each has been badly affected by the hurricane. 28 have been killed in the region as a result of the hurricane – the worst to hit the region since records began in 1850. High winds have caused floods, disrupted infrastructure, cut access to clean water, destroyed power lines, and have heavily damaged a large proportion of buildings, leaving many homeless.

The repercussions of such damages continue to unfold. The lack of resources has sparked looting across the islands, while criminals have escaped from damaged jail blocks. Though the majority of the islands’ populations are working hard to rebuild their homes and survive the resource shortages, law and order has broken down in areas as state authorities struggle mobilize among the wreckage.

Though the islands are independently governed, their populations are British citizens. As the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, James Landale, has highlighted, the three territories are self-governing, but the Queen is the Head of State, and the British government remains responsible for their defence and security with a duty to protect them from natural disasters.

Reacting to the destruction of the hurricane, the British government has pledged £32million in aid and has promised to match the aid provided by a Red Cross emergency fund. RFA Mounts Bay is stationed in the region providing aid, and HMS Ocean is en route, expected to arrive in the coming two weeks. Military aircraft have begun flying regularly from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire carrying engineers, marines, and medics.

According to official government statements, 40 metric tonnes of Department for International Development aid has reached the island, including shelter kits and solar lanterns, while nine tonnes of food and water was delivered on Monday alone. But many have not deemed this adequate.

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has claimed that the government is doing all it can to support the victims in Anguilla, the Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos Islands. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has echoed the claims, praising the ‘very good’ response.

This response has been criticised by island residents and domestic commentators alike. Josephine Gumbs-Conner, a barrister from Anguilla, claims the British response has been ‘sorely lacking’ – a sentiment echoed by many locals and British tourists caught in the chaos. The opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has publically stated that the UK ‘should have acted faster,’ pointing out the fact that the present destruction was forecast early enough for precautions to be made before the arrival of the hurricane.

Former Attorney General to Anguilla, Rupert Jones, has highlighted the vital importance of tourism to the islands’ economies and has stressed that repurposing airports and hotels should be the medium term priority after the immediate humanitarian needs. If this sector is neglected, the effects of the hurricane could reverberate for months and years in the form of economic stagnation. Given that the government recently made £285million available for the construction of an airport in its South Atlantic territory, St Helena, Jones asserts that the UK must not neglect its Caribbean territories’ infrastructural needs.

It is unfair to compare British aid responses to that of the French or Dutch authorities as both nations still govern areas of the Caribbean and therefore have a permanent military presence in the region. However, it is worth noting that both French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch King Willem-Alexander have paid visits to the region, while also doubling their military and police presence in affected areas.

Though aid is being distributed and the navy and air force have been mobilized, the British government should work quickly to resolve the immediate humanitarian situation of mass homelessness and a lack of resources. In the medium term, infrastructure essential to the territories’ economies should be heavily invested in so that the effects of the storm do not hinder the islands for months and years to come.