“In London, we could never afford all this,” she says as friends enjoy freshly baked banana bread and strong Jamaican coffee served by a domestic helper. “Jamaica is certainly not cheap, but it does offer us a quality of life we enjoy. Plus, we are Jamaican and this is our country. Although I lived in England for 36 years, coming home was always my intention.”
For years, that was the goal of nearly all Jamaicans who left seeking work because of the poor wages and scarcity of opportunity at home. They returned at retirement to take advantage of the sunny Caribbean island's lower costs and comfortable climate – and at the same time they provide a significant source of foreign currency for the economy.
But to the dismay of the government, fewer and fewer Jamaicans are coming back from London, New York, Toronto and other cities that drew them away as young adults. Over the last 20 years, the annual number of “returning nationals” has dropped by more than half – down to slightly more than 1,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which official figures are available.
Some overseas Jamaicans are stuck in devalued homes because of the world economic crunch and find their Caribbean paradise is out of reach financially. Others are choosing to live in retirement communities in places like Florida that offer strong personal care services. Often they are put off by Jamaica's high rates of crime that were unimaginable when they left just as the island was shedding its status as a colonial outpost of Britain a half century ago.
Caribbean islands have long suffered a “brain drain” that has seen professionals and skilled workers head off to jobs in the U.S., Europe and Canada. Leaders of small islands like Grenada and St. Lucia have lately begun wooing nationals abroad and encouraging them to assist with developing their struggling homelands, but much more populous Jamaica has the most focused effort to forge relationships with its overseas citizens.
About 3 million Jamaicans live abroad, more than the 2.7 million who are here. The $2 billion they send home each year is a major source of investment and wealth for this poor island, accounting for more than 13 percent of its GDP. The Bank of Jamaica says retirees who move back home are a key factor, estimating that their pensions provide 15 percent of the inflow of foreign currency.
Government officials are working to entice more nationals to come home — or at least to invest in Jamaica. A four-day Jamaica Diaspora Conference in mid-June hopes to attract hundreds of representatives of Jamaican overseas communities in the U.S., Britain, Canada and elsewhere in the Caribbean to discuss trade and investment.
The private sector also touts the need for more Jamaicans to move back.
Developer Stafford Earle, who has just completed a subdivision selling primarily to Jamaicans with foreign pension checks, says returnees are a boost for the local economy along the scenic coast of Westmoreland parish where he builds.
“The overall long-term financial input will be as great as that of sugar and tourism,” Earle said.
Irwine Clare, managing director of the New York-based advocacy group Caribbean Immigrant Services, believes crime is the biggest problem keeping Jamaicans from resettling on the island.
The good news for Jamaica is that homicides and other major crimes have been going down since 2010, when an anti-gang crackdown got started. For 2012, police reported 1,087 homicides, the lowest number in nine years. National Security Minister Peter Bunting says the island aims to reduce crime to “First World levels” by 2017, when he hopes to have a maximum of just 321 killings.
For now, Jamaica still has an eye-popping violent crime rate. When Chicago, with roughly the same population as Jamaica, chalked up 506 homicides last year, the bloodshed put the city at the center of the U.S. debate over guns. Jamaica's has had 1,000-plus killings every year since 2004.