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Can The Bahamas afford the detention center?

Published: Sep 02, 2013

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Dear Editor,

The rapid fire assault on the reputation of The Bahamas in the midst of allegations of abuse of Cuban detainees at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre represents a golden opportunity for the government to have a critical look at its immigration policies.

An unmerciful and unrelenting campaign of vilification has been unleashed against The Bahamas’ reputation as a prime tourist destination and as a top offshore financial center by the Florida-based Movement for Democracy, in alliance with certain influential U.S. senators and others.

While the brunt of the attack is grounded on alleged abuses and human rights violations at the detention center, its effect will no doubt extend to our reputation as a destination of choice for tourism and financial services. As the government has already announced it will launch an independent investigation into the abuse allegations, I will await the outcome before drawing any conclusions one way or another.

This letter is intended, for what it’s worth, to call attention to the need, in my view, for an urgent re-examination of our overall immigration policy and to examine the rationality and justification for maintaining a government-run detention facility.

The battle that The Bahamas currently finds itself entangled is, ironically enough, not of its own making. We are presently caught in the crossfire of an old ideological battle between the United States and Cuba. This battle is a spillover from the old Cold War era, when both the U.S. and the old Soviet Union, in the main, were battling for ideological supremacy around the globe.

Cuban boat people who now find themselves at the detention center are there only because of their decision to risk a highly treacherous journey to the U.S., mainly as political and economic refugees. For the most part, The Bahamas is not their ultimate destination.

Dr. Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser to several presidents, writing many years ago, gave an interesting snapshot of the genesis of the Cuban exodus to the U.S. since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959: “Castro’s rule generated a flood of refugees to the United States whose growing numbers and implacable hostility to the Castro regime became a factor in our domestic politics, especially in Florida,” Dr. Kissinger wrote.

There is no doubt today that this Cuban lobby in Florida has grown into a very powerful political force and its effects can no doubt be felt in this ongoing crisis. Indeed, it is this same powerful lobby that can, ironically, play a leading role in bringing this crisis, if it is a crisis, to an end.

I say that because the approach taken by the Cubans in Florida has not been altogether constructive. I think that what is needed now is constructive dialogue, not open or veiled threats, to bring The Bahamas to heel in the international arena.

Dr. Kissinger also wrote: “In the rest of the Western Hemisphere, Castro’s defiance of the American giant, his survival of the Bay of Pigs of 1961 (a United States-backed invasion plan to topple him) and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and his military ties to the Soviet Union made him an object of dread and admiration. Dread because of his potential for fostering civil unrest, perhaps even revolution; admiration for his daring in pulling the eagle’s feather.”

The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba has been a troubled one since Castro — the bearded, cigar chomping revolutionary — nationalized U.S. companies in Cuba shortly after coming to power. The U.S. responded by imposing a total economic embargo and, in essence, nothing has changed since that time, although the world has witnessed the collapse of the old Soviet Union.

In the middle lies The Bahamas, a victim of geography. Enter the detention center, set up many years ago to provide at least a modicum of humanity and decency to illegal immigrants finding themselves temporarily on our shores. Thousands of Haitian, Cuban and other illegal immigrants have passed through its doors.

In all the years that it has existed, I don’t think any right-thinking person can seriously suggest that the detention center, under both governments, has not operated consistent with international standards.

In the UK, the government has decided to wash its hands of the administration of detention centers and have given them over to the private sector, not, of course, without first putting in place the Detention Centre Rules of 2001.

There is little doubt that the cost of running the detention center at Carmichael Road is exorbitant. I am reliably informed that it has cost taxpayers millions of dollars to administer over the last several years. When one takes into account food, water, laundry facilities, electricity, sleeping accommodations, recreation, security and staff at the center, that seems a reasonable estimate.

I wonder what it costs the government, and hence the taxpayers, to fly detainees back to their home country, whether it’s Haiti, Cuba, China, Nigeria or wherever on an annual basis.

It seems that the financial and political costs to The Bahamas of maintaining this facility far outweigh any possible benefits. The present attack on The Bahamas’ reputation arising from the allegations of abuse is a further example of the high price that we must pay for our generosity.

I say generosity because judged by international standards, the facilities at the detention center can in no way be described as the worst of the worst. While they might not be perfect, I think it is fair and right to say that the facilities meet international standards. I think I am supported in this conclusion by the near absence of complaints coming from the facility vis-à-vis the adequacy of the facility and its living conditions.

In the UK, the Detention Centre Rules govern the running of these facilities. For example, under the rules it is provided that “every detained person shall have proper regard for personal hygiene in their own interest and the interests of others”.

“Every detained person shall be provided with toilet articles necessary for his health and cleanliness, which shall be replaced as necessary,” the rules further state.

No doubt similar standards are followed in The Bahamas. Who is footing the bill?

The UK rules further provide for each detainee to have a daily bath and shower, a daily shave and regular haircuts.

Each detainee is given time in the open air and is allowed adequate recreation and library facilities. Men and women are required to sleep in separate rooms, a situation which, I am informed, obtains at the local detention center.

The UK rules provide for each detainee to be given adequate, well-prepared and served food, which must meet all dietary, religious, cultural and medical needs. No doubt the provision of food at the local detention center is a huge part of its bill of costs; although no one would contest that the detainees have to be fed. But it is a question of cost at the end of the day.

I don’t think that our foreign policy should be conducted on the emotions of the moment but by a calculated assessment of what is in the national best interest of The Bahamas. Is it in the national interest of The Bahamas to continue to operate a facility that is obviously an unjustifiable drain on the public purse, especially in these tight economic conditions?

Perhaps this is a golden opportunity for groups like the Movement for Democracy, with all its power and influence, to demonstrate its commitment to the welfare of Cubans fleeing oppression to consider the provision of some form of financial assistance towards their upkeep at the detention center.

Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe is acutely aware of the potential impact the present crisis is having on our reputation as a tourist destination. I was very happy to hear him say the other day that he is continuing to push The Bahamas as a prime destination in the face of this relentless onslaught. He deserves our support in this herculean effort. One wonders how much of the Ministry of Tourism’s budget will now have to be diverted in an increased advertising effort to counter the ill-effects of the present campaign.

In conclusion, I think the time has come for the government to seriously examine the rationale for the continued existence of the detention center in light of prevailing financial conditions. To close its doors might not be inconsistent with our human rights obligations under international treaties. Perhaps it has become a luxury that we can no longer afford out of the public treasury.

- Mark Symonette-Rolle


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