The Haitian Dilemma for Bahamian Society

First Published: 2005-04-06

Former cabinet minister George Smith raised his head recently to push a hardline approach towards illegal Haitian immigrants.

We can't think why…when Mr Smith represented Exuma he never seemed alarmed about gun-toting Colombians chasing Bahamians off their own beaches.

But he nevertheless expressed a view that deserves consideration – because the ongoing Haitian migration will dramatically change our society and culture in just a few short years.

Mr Smith advocated a return to tactics that have been pursued sporadically over the years by different governments. But most people link them to retired PLP national security minister A, Loftus Roker.

Successive Bahamian governments have been rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants since the late 1950s, when Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier consolidated his hold on power with a group of thugs known as the Ton Ton Macoute.

But it was not until the dying days of the Duvalier dynasty in 1985 that a diplomatic agreement was finally reached with Haiti to take back 300 illegals a month. Following a brief amnesty, Mr Roker launched a series of roundups on several islands, drawing the ire of both civil rights activists and the Catholic Church.

"If you do not leave, I will try to remove you. That is my sworn duty. We cannot have this situation." Mr Roker declared.

Dogs were used to hunt people down, children were forced out of schools, parents were pulled off jitneys and jailed, creole priests were sent packing, Haitian diplomats were arrested, illegals were beaten up and one man died in police custody.

Roman Catholic Bishop Lawrence Burke appealed to the government for a "clear, consistent and compassionate policy" towards Haitians. And opposition leader Kendal Isaacs called for Mr Roker's resignation.

Mr Roker's anger was not focused solely on Haitians. Jamaicans and other West indians were also included in the dragnet – so much for Caricom brotherhood and unification.

THE MALAYSIAN EXAMPLE

The most recent example of this hardline approach comes from Malaysia – a prosperous former British colony of 25 million in southeast Asia.

Late last year, Malaysia gave illegal immigrants (mostly Indonesians) a deadline to leave. Almost half a million did, but hundreds of thousands stayed. So the government began a nationwide crackdown in February, using thousands of police and civilian volunteers – read vigilantes.

In addition to fines and jail, the Malaysians also whip illegal immigrants. But many take the risk anyway because of the scarcity of jobs at home and the shortage of cheap labour in Malaysia.

Many of those caught are sent to processing centres in Indonesia, where they can get work permits to return within a few weeks. Critics say the government could spare the migrants this inconvenience by giving them permits while they are still in the country.

But the popular attitude towards illegals in Malayasia is very similar to that in the Bahamas. They are blamed by ordinary citizens for crime, the growth of slums, the spread of disease and the overuse of social services. Here are a few examples of Bahamian opinion from online discussion groups…

"There should be no shanty towns anywhere in the Bahamas. They should pay for permits for their children to even go to school. They should pay for medical care. They should pay rent.

"No foreigner should receive free education in this country. NONE. We need to weed all Haitian and other culture children out of our schools and do it now. Make them go to the private schools and pay their way.

"Haitians don't pay national Insurance but when they get older and can't work they will receive the non contributory old age pension.

"We are being overrun by illegal immigrants, namely Haitians, who are sometimes lawless because of their culture. Soon Bahamians are going to take the law into their hands, God forbid, and that will be the day we have war in the Bahamas."

"Thousands of Bahamians are unemployed with serious bills to pay while the illegal immigrant with very little overhead strains our education system with their children, takes advantage of our healthcare and makes our ministry of Labour and Immigration look like a joke."

THE HAITIAN CONTRIBUTION

According to Pastor Jeff Lloyd, who runs a popular radio talk show, these disturbing posts are a genuine reflection of public opinion:

"That is the real feeling out there. There is a great deal of anger and despair, and a tremendous fear of Haitians," he told Tough Call recently. "There are many reasons for this, including a lack of confidence, a ready acceptance of racist propaganda, and the feeling that nothing is being done to address the problem."

Just like us, the Malaysian government has not studied the economic contributions made by immigrants. Nor does it have reliable data on the number of illegals in the country. "The 1.2 million figure floating around was pulled out of thin air," a government spokesman said.

According to a 2002 report by Ria Treco of the University of Florida, "Haitian labour has contributed significantly to the building of the Bahamas, especially in forestry, farming and tertiary trades such as tailoring, barbering, gardening and domestic work, which Bahamians are unwilling to undertake. Haitians have also made significant contributions in building trades.

"It appears that, given the opportunity that education and work afford, the Haitian people embrace these with ambition and value…and the Bahamas will always be one of the top destinations due to the proximity to the United States and the social capital that has been established here."

But no-one seems to know just how much capital there is here. In 1980, there were "officially" 11,000 Haitians recorded in a total population of 240,000. In 2000, the official count was 21,000, or 7 per cent of the population. But more realistic estimates put the number of illegal Haitians today at 25 per cent of the current population of 310,000 – or some 78,000.

This is an alarming figure, and it has finally led the government to ask the International Office of Migration for help. The IOM is a United Nations agency that developed from efforts to resolve refugee problems following World War Two. Experts from the IOM are reviewing our border control measures and organising a count of illegals in the country.

SOLUTIONS TO THE 'PROBLEM'

What can be done? Well, although every government so far has pushed it under the mat, there is a veritable cottage industry of solutions for the so-called Haitian "problem."

One commentator called for a quota on work permits based on economic needs. Immigrants would get photo id cards and be allowed to acquire government housing. Shanty towns like the Mud in Abaco would then be razed. And employers hiring illegals outside the quota would be prosecuted.

Others say regularisation of existing migrants and their families is much more important, pointing to the thousands of Haitian-Bahamians "who live in a legal twilight while bureaucrats and politicians dilly-dally in doing what they have to do."

Some analysts say we should set up a recruitment office in Haiti to supply our labour needs, and then seal our southern borders with help from the US. Others say it is crucial to begin the assimilation of thousands of Haitians already in our midst – integration being the only way to avoid civil strife and the loss of national identity.

One online writer advocated giving "green card" status to illegals already here, and after 10 years they could apply for citizenship. This would let them get loans, pay taxes and become a part of society: "If we do not do this we will have a party of second or third generation Bahamian-born Haitians with seats in the House and then they can do what they want."

And Pastor Lloyd favours the prescription laid down a few years back by Education Minister Alfred Sears (when he was not in government):

"We should do four things," Pastor Lloyd told Tough Call. "First, plug the leak – we simply cannot allow open borders. Second, continue an aggressive yet humane roundup, including employers. Third, implement a sustained integration exercise with civic classes. Fourth, regularise those who were born here – they cannot be forced to the fringes of society or we will create a worse problem for ourselves in the future."

Mr Sears wrote a perceptive article on 'The Haitian Question' for The Bahamas Historical Society Journal in 1994, in which he pointed to a "growing phobia" among Bahamians that could "explode into violent confrontation." He added that, because there is no public acknowledgement of the Haitian contribution to Bahamian society, we regard them as parasites – despite the fact that they pay the same Customs duty as the rest of us.

This perception of a threatening Haitian presence conditions the official Bahamian response, Mr Sears wrote. So that now we have former government ministers like George Smith (chairman of the Hotel Corporation) calling for the mobilisation of citizens in a Malaysian-style "decisive crackdown on illegals". Something which his own government failed to do when the problem was much easier to deal with.

In his 1994 article, Mr Sears – who is now also the attorney-general – reported the view that the Haitian community was used as a scapegoat for the government's failure to come up with an effective national development plan.

But he also called for an independent agency to regularise the status of those aliens who have acquired prima facie nationality: "The policy rationale of such a course would be the effective integration of the Haitian community into Bahamian society."

And he advocated a nationwide public education campaign focusing on the contributions that immigrants make to Bahamian society, to help defuse hostility. This national education drive should also address the misplaced expectations that many Bahamians have about job opportunities, he said:

"With a shift in Bahamian expectations there would be a decrease in the demand for Haitian and other immigrant labour to do work that is necessary but which Bahamians refuse to do."

Well, good luck with that one Minister Sears. We wondered why we haven't heard from you on this subject lately.

SECURITY ISSUES

In our view, the issue that trumps all others is security. How can the government protect our southwestern frontier from a population of 27 million mostly poor people in Hispaniola and Cuba, with an estimated combined annual migrating population of over 60,000?

According to William Cox, writing for the Nassau Institute in an article titled Strategic Implications of Illegal Immigration, "The Bahamas faces a territorial challenge founded in the reality that the sheer numbers facing the country are overwhelming. The government should understand that the principal of mass usually prevails in these situations. And yet, there are exceptions.

He points to Brunei and Singapore in southeast Asia, Malta in Europe and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East as examples of small countries that have successfully resisted being overrun by much larger populations near their borders. They have defended their territory through effective military and police capabilities.

"The Bahamas must develop a strategy to consistently and persistently patrol its entire territory and frontiers to deter illegal immigration. The sheer magnitude of the problem indicates that it won't stop, and that it will most likely continue to grow. The government must develop a new approach to this situation."

Clearly (to this writer at least) we have no hope of implementing such a strategy, either financially or technically. We need the active and substantive assistance of American military forces.

Most commentators and policymakers would agree that illegal Haitian immigration is the biggest threat to our national security and to our survival as a nation. So it should also be clear that building a strong political and security relationship with the United States is a top priority for Bahamian diplomacy.

It is important for the government to have a well-thought-out Haitian policy. It is important to have a fully functioning embassy in Port-au-Prince. It is important to develop an effective relationship with the interim Haitian government. And it is important to achieve a deeper understanding with the US on security matters.

But don't take our word for it. Just listen to the average Bahamian…they will tell you in no uncertain terms that we should be paying a lot more attention to Haiti – the world's first black republic – than to the People's Republic of China.

After all, mercantile interests will generally take care of themselves.

This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, April 6, 2005.

The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: larry@tribunemedia.net

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