Dozens of Barbudans were forcibly evicted Saturday from a shelter on neighboring Antigua, leaving them without a home almost exactly a year after powerful Hurricane Irma devastated their island.
Around 40 people -- half of them children, the youngest just a month old -- were ousted from the National Technical Training Center after police and government officials descended on the building in the capital St John's.
Many had been camped out there since the cataclysmic Category 5 storm powered through the Caribbean early last September, razing homes and infrastructure on Barbuda and prompting most of its population to evacuate to its sister island of Antigua, with the rest following soon after.
The two are the main islands of the nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
The government said the Barbudans defied two previous deadlines to vacate the school, Antigua's last remaining shelter.
"The school needs to go back to normal operations," Philmore Mullin, head of the national office of disaster services, told AFP.
"The Barbudans have a responsibility to return home."
The government said it will foot the bill to ferry the families and their belongings back to the tiny island, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Antigua. Just over half of the former 1,800 refugees have already returned.
But the families, including several single mothers, say they have no homes to go back to.
"We don't have anyone to stay with," said one, Ionnie Jeffrey. "That's why we are here."
Another, Nieoka Simon, said she has severe health problems and needs to be close to a hospital, for herself and for her four-month-old baby. Barbuda's sole clinic still offers only limited services.
Others expressed concern about uprooting their children from school for the second time in a year. Repairs are continuing at Barbuda's primary school.
"They're making us look like criminals," said Elessa Harris, a mother of three, her belongings piled on the pavement.
"We understand the shelter is not open forever, but they shouldn't just put kids out on the street."
Nadia George of the Barbuda Council, which oversees day-to-day internal affairs on that island, accused the Antiguan government of being "downright irresponsible."
"They should have contacted us and had dialogue, rather than just shutting the place down," she added.
- Total destruction -
Hurricane Irma was directly responsible for 47 deaths across the Caribbean and southeastern United States, the National Hurricane Center said in a report issued in June, as well as an additional 82 indirect deaths in the US.
According to the report, the tiny of island of Barbuda "took a direct hit from Irma at its peak intensity," resulting in the destruction of about 95 percent of its infrastructure, including the local airport.
The island was left with no water or communications and was considered "nearly uninhabitable," with most of its 1,700 residents leaving for Antigua, and the remaining evacuating when Hurricane Jose threatened, leaving it uninhabited for the first time in 300 years.
Preliminary estimates of property damage on the island are between $150 and $300 million.