Haitian migrants cause a stir

Larry Smith

After last year’s earthquake in Haiti, many Bahamians contributed relief to their afflicted neighbours, but the long-established presence of Haitians on Bahamian soil often arouses less charitable feelings

The January 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and killed an estimated 230,000 people in Haiti produced a mixed response from Bahamians that underlined the country’s deep divisions over immigration.

In the aftermath of the quake, local charities and churches in the Bahamas worked overtime, collecting money, food and clothing for the Haitian relief effort. Rotary clubs alone raised over $700,000 in cash and ferried millions of dollars in supplies to the stricken island by sea and air. But many Bahamians reacted angrily to the government’s decision to release illegal Haitian immigrants from the Nassau detention centre and suspend apprehension and repatriation efforts, forcing Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham to defend his policy.

“The Haitian homeland has been devastated by the worst catastrophe in 200 years.

Burdening a collapsed country with destitute deportees would be a true crime. I can’t imagine hypocrites going to church on Sunday and then saying we ought to detain these people and send them back to Haiti,” he declared.

Hostile and often bigoted attitudes among Bahamians towards Haitians are reflected in volatile online discussions and in the mass media. These have a lot to do with the failure of religious, political and educational leaders to adequately address the social and cultural issues involved, mainly to avoid stirring the political pot.

The situation is compounded by the lack of hard information on the level of Haitian migration. In 2004 the International Organization of Migration (IOM) undertook an assessment of the Haitian community in the Bahamas, in conjunction with researchers at the College of the Bahamas (COB). Their 98-page report collated all the available data, and Creole-speaking interviewers surveyed 500 Haitians on four islands, with the support of the Haitian embassy, but the findings were never officially published and are almost never discussed (although the report is available online).

Counting illegals is a notoriously unreliable exercise, but the IOM used several methods to arrive at an estimate of 30,000- 60,000, of which many were just passing through to a third country (like the USA) or returning home to Haiti. The report also pointed out that an estimated 70,000 undocumented Bahamians were living in the USA, in addition to some 12,000 living there legally.

Current estimates of the size of the Haitian population in the Bahamas range from 80,000 to 400,000 (more than the entire Bahamian population of about 353,000).The higher numbers have been claimed at various times by politicians, journalists and pundits – among others – with a view to proving that the islands are being overrun by Creole-speakers.

Fears that Haitians are overwhelming public services were, however dispelled by the IOM report. Although Haitian residents do access free services, official data indicate that less than 9 percent of all schoolchildren are Haitian, while Haitians constituted about 11 percent of hospital admissions in 2001 (although they made almost 20 percent of all outpatient visits to public clinics). And despite the widespread perception that Haitian women are producing babies at a fantastic rate, the IOM reported that less than 12 percent of live births in the Bahamas were to Haitian nationals in 2003.

Meanwhile, over 12,000 registered Haitians contributed more than $3.5 million to national insurance in 2004, while receiving only 1.8 percent of total benefits – far less than might be expected from the estimated size of the population. Haitians, whether legal or not, also pay taxes in the form of import duties on whatever they buy in Bahamian stores.

Over 30 years ago, Bahamian social scientist, Dawn Marshall, undertook the firstever study of the Haitian migration to the Bahamas. She noted then: “It cannot be in the best interest of either the Bahamian government or the Bahamian nation to allow a large proportion of its population to live and develop in isolation.” In its 2005 report, the IOM said much the same thing: “Unless the Haitian community becomes more fully integrated into Bahamian society, an important minority of the Bahamianborn population will grow up as foreigners within the only society they know.”

There is no automatic right of citizenship for children born in the Bahamas to foreign parents. COB professor, Ian Strachan, wrote recently: “Disenfranchising a person for 18 years while they await entry into the exclusive club of Bahamian citizenship creates frustration, shame, anger, alienation and bitterness in the hearts of thousands of young people who know, have, and want no other home. It’s simply inhumane, shortsighted and stupid.”

Marshall says now that the official policy of most Bahamian governments boils down to “apprehend and deport with no consideration of the needs of the economy”. She adds: “Small island developing states like the Bahamas usually have to import labour if they want to grow. We need a policy on how we are going to manage that importation.”

The Bahamas needs immigrant labour, and although Haitian migrants are willing to work harder for less pay than Bahamians, they remain an object of scorn, often perceived as the “lurking enemy intent on taking over”. Such widespread resentment creates problems for the children of Haitian migrants.

Meanwhile, public opinion would have the government sink Haitian ships, destroy immigrant housing and deport every man, woman and child of Haitian descent. There may be better solutions, but Bahamians will never arrive at them without a rational public debate based on accurate information.

Nicolette Bethel is a social scientist and former Director of Culture for the Bahamas government. She is currently an assistant professor at the College of the Bahamas

The so-called ‘Haitian Crisis’ in the Bahamas is a problem almost wholly of Bahamians’ own making. Bahamian borders are notoriously porous. The national waters of the Bahamas overlap and mingle with those of Florida, Cuba, the Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Migration is endemic.

Since the end of the 18th century, if not before, Haitian migration through the Bahamas has been constant. It intensified under the Duvaliers, and since then, the increasing prosperity of the Bahamas has led to a rising demand for cheap immigrant labourers, many of whom have settled and raised children here.

The time has come to embrace the reality of the situation: ours is a country of migrants. And our nation needs more population. It is in our interest to regulate and encourage immigrant settlement – whether from Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean, or beyond.

Jonathan Rodgers is an ophthalmologist who has written a book on Bahamian economic development

For the most part, Haitian migrants work in the low-end service sector and many are employed in the underground economy – such as illegal gambling, money-changing operations, gun running, human trafficking and drug smuggling. Every Haitian shanty town also has a full array of unlicensed and unregulated retail outlets.

Overall, the Haitian diaspora’s contribution to the Bahamian economy is limited because the migrants fill unskilled jobs, they repatriate much of their earnings via the grey market, and they pay no taxes on their illegal earnings.

They are a major expense to the government because they utilise a disproportionate amount of public services. This is clearly not sustainable, and it is therefore of utmost importance for the government to take a firm stand on a regularisation and repatriation policy that is both humane and fair.

Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, recently said that the US economy would be far better off if its immigrants were all PhDs instead of fruit-pickers, and the same applies to the Bahamas. Our economy would be far more advanced if more of our immigrants, as well as our indigenous population, were better educated.

About the author:

Larry Smith writes a weekly column for the Nassau Tribune and he operates a communications agency.


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