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Heavy Haitian burden

U.S. cables question The Bahamas' capacity to manage illegal immigration
  • A bus load of illegal Haitian migrants apprehended in Bahamian waters (file photo).

NG Managing Editor

Published: Jun 27, 2011

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When the United Nations last week urged countries with high Haitian refugee populations to stop repatriations, the highly emotional and contentious issues surrounding The Bahamas’ own immigration challenges once again took center stage.

The U.N. argues that the conditions in the impoverished country continue to be “precarious” since the January 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The Bahamas, which temporarily halted repatriations to Haiti following the earthquake, says that if a formal request is made, it will be taken under consideration. Illegal Haitian migration places a heavy burden on the local economy.

It’s an issue that is always there but the approach to tackling the country’s immigration issues — largely surrounding Haitians — has been an obvious challenge for successive governments due in large part to limited resources and some would say, a lack of planning.

The Bahamas’ challenge of illegal migration was a topic of a 2003 confidential U.S. Embassy cable obtained by The Nassau Guardian through WikiLeaks.

The cable, headlined, “Challenges of Illegal Migration; Can The Bahamas Manage?” addressed the need for The Bahamas to add a mass migration contingency component to its ongoing natural disaster planning.

The cable stated that the Department of Immigration was unprepared for mass migration.

Then Director of Immigration Vernon Burrows admitted to Nancy Iris, Deputy Director for the Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration (PRM) who visited Nassau from October 13 - October 17, 2003 that “migration is a scary issue for us. We can’t handle more (migrants) than we already have,” according to the cable.

At that time, the Carmichael Road Detention Center had the capacity to house 500 migrants indoors, with enough land to erect tents to provide shelter for an additional 500 detainees. At the time there were just under 200 people being detained, the majority being Haitians and Cubans.

“If there should be a sudden increase in these numbers, there is no GCOB (Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas) plan for how to attain the additional food, beds, or shelter.

“Burrows suggested that GCOB has no contingency plan for a spike in migration, although this was disputed by other government officials who claimed that a draft plan is under preparation.”

The cable also noted the “complexity and inefficiency” of processing asylum requests in The Bahamas.

Once one of the few trained senior immigration officials has completed the interview, the information is sent to UNHCR in Washington for an assessment of the case.  Their recommendation is then forwarded to the Department of Immigration, who then passes it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Cabinet approval.

According to the cable, the senior immigration official who spoke with Ms. Iris admitted that this is a slow and laborious process, especially given that the final designation must be made by Cabinet, “an unusually high level of decision making for such a determination”.

“The senior official told Ms. Iris that where Cubans are automatically pre screened for asylum, Haitians must request the interview.  Few Haitians actually request an interview for asylum, perhaps because they believe their efforts would be futile,” according to the cable.

“Haitians are also at a disadvantage in the interview process because there is no full-time Creole-speaker at the detention center, and despite relatively high Haitian' migrants' rate of illiteracy, there is limited help in filling out the requisite forms for seeking asylum.  For calendar year 2002, only four migrants were given refugee status, according to Bahamian officials.”

The cable also noted that the Detention Center used to house illegal migrants appeared inadequate in terms of space and services given the number of detainees housed there.

“Children held at this facility are given no access to education even if their length of stay extends for several months.  Limited healthcare, restricted access to outside communication and legal advice, difficulty in obtaining toiletries and necessary clothing, and small food portions are the main complaints from migrants.

“Should the Detention Center ever receive a large increase in its numbers, (an official) admitted that the sewage and plumbing systems, security and the current food distribution method would be woefully inadequate.”

There were also concerns of an uprising should the migrants' numbers increase, as various ethnic groups of different languages and cultures are held in the same dorms at a time.

A political mine field

A U.S. Embassy official concluded in a separate cable that the bottom line for The Bahamas on Haiti “is the fear of mass migration and doing anything that might trigger an outflow”.

This concern was highlighted in a Confidential 2003 cable headlined “Bahamas Unlikely to Pressure Aristide.”

While then Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell acknowledged problems with democracy in Haiti at the time, he made it clear to U.S. Embassy officials that The Bahamian government preferred continued engagement with President Aristide to any type of public confrontation.

“Mitchell’s main concern is doing whatever he can to slow down illegal immigration from Haiti — a key domestic political imperative — and he has been fruitless pursing an immigration accord with the Government of Haiti for several months,” according to the cable.

The cable noted that Mitchell in particular made conclusion of an immigration agreement his top foreign policy priority.

“Our sources in the Immigration Department tell us the negotiations are not going well, stalled over Haitian insistence on an amnesty for the 30,000 – 100,000 Haitians already in The Bahamas (most illegally),” stated the cable.

“Such concession would be suicide for Mitchell in the xenophobic Bahamian political landscape. “

According to the cable, the pursuit of that agreement and any other means to slow down migration would continue to push any concerns for democracy and human rights into the backseat.

“While The Bahamas will remain engaged on Haiti, the Christie government will resist any effort to put real teeth into any diplomatic effort to Pressure Aristide, preferring (endless) conversation and dialogue to the alternative,” the cable stated.

A thorny issue

The issue of Haitian migration obviously goes beyond the country’s capacity to deal with a mass influx, or the political fallout of such an event.

The topic of illegal immigration and how to stem its flow and impact on the country spurs heated discussions.

Author and playwright and Nassau Guardian columnist Ian Strachan recently wrote in his East St. Blues column that the Haitian “problem” is shaped by a number of factors.

“Haitian migrants are a crucial source of cheap, reliable, motivated labor, particularly in the agricultural sector.  Increasingly, however, as the middle class shrinks and the ranks of the Bahamian working poor swell, there is growing resentment toward Haitian immigrants and their children because they are now competing for jobs deemed above their social station,” Strachan writes.

“Where once a Haitian only worked as a gardener, farmer, grounds keeper or “handyman”—work young Bahamian men have looked down on for the past forty years—they are now working at gas stations, in hardware stores, and gaining employment as masons and carpenters, jobs Bahamian men have dominated.  Many a Bahamian contractor prefers Haitian immigrant labor to Bahamian, not simply because it is cheaper, but because it is better.

“There is also the real and perceived strain on national services, such as education and health care, created by the immigrant influx.  And there are national security concerns, fed by the fear of Haitian immigrants ‘violent’ people.  Added to this are Bahamians’ fears of cultural erasure, and political/economic displacement due to the perception of Haitians as a lurking enemy intent on ‘taking over’.”

Well-known businessman Rick Lowe, in a recent letter to the editor wrote that the approach to finding a permanent solution to the country’s immigration issues has been “lackadaisical”.

Lowe offered the following suggestions:

• Policing of illegal immigrants who are here must be improved.

• Legalize the status of many of the Haitians who have been here for generations.

• Provide property rights for the squatters and figure out how to phase their status in so they can eventually become full citizens or leave voluntarily.

The U.S. Embassy cables also note the sensitive social issues connected to the Haitian population in The Bahamas.

“Bahamians strongly resent the social cost, cultural impact, and crime linked – in popular stereotypes certainly – to Haitian immigration.  These sentiments are confirmed in contacts with government officials, political activists, especially the youth, and NGO leaders who interact with both communities,” the Americans observed in a cable.

“Haitians are thought to impose disproportionate demands on inadequate social services, primarily health and education, due to the higher birth rate in the Haitian community.”

These issues, the Americans observed, have the potential to explode someday in The Bahamas if constructive policies are not introduced to further integration.

Immigration is a national issue that will no doubt top any administration’s national agenda and will require some tough and politically tough decisions.

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