The Immigration Fiasco – Part 1
Many Bahamians were offended and outraged by the remarks made by President Michel Martelly of the Republic of Haiti during his recent visit to The Bahamas. During his time here, Martelly paid courtesy calls on the governor general, the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and individuals of Haitian heritage, albeit not in that order.
Martelly’s visit came as a shock to the majority of Bahamians who had been unaware of his impending visit to The Bahamas. Our prime minister indicated during a press conference held on February 11, 2012, four days after Martelly’s initial arrival that The Bahamas government had not invited Martelly, but rather he had been notified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday February 4, 2012, a non-working day, that Martelly intended to stop in The Bahamas en route to Mexico. It was later confirmed that very day that Martelly would remain a day and a night in The Bahamas. In fact, the president arrived in The Bahamas on the evening of February 7 and departed on February 8, 2012.
It seems fair to say that The Bahamas government erred by not officially informing the Bahamian people that Martelly would make an official visit to The Bahamas. The president had left Haiti to visit Venezuela and Panama where he was expected to remain two days each in both countries from February 3 to February 7. Martelly traveled to Venezuela to attend the 11th Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and to Panama to discuss matters pertaining to Haitians living in Panama and the delivery of visas to Haitians by the Panamanian government. It is reported that on short notice, Martelly decided to extend his travels to include the countries of The Bahamas and Curacao.
It is reported that the Haitian government issued a statement through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing the Haitian people of Martelly’s adjusted itinerary. The question remains that if in fact our government had been aware of Martelly’s visit from Saturday February 4, why wasn’t the Bahamian public notified? It is apparent that thousands of individuals of Haitian descent in The Bahamas had been duly informed as evidenced by the attendance at the Church of God’s auditorium.
During Martelly’s recent visit to Curacao, he was greeted at the airport by the prime minister of Curacao, Gerrit Schotte, and other dignitaries. Subsequently the Haitian diplomatic envoy and Curacao dignitaries attended a meeting with persons of Haitian origin on the specific request of Martelly. It is worth noting that nationals of Curacao were also present at the aforementioned gathering. The national anthems of both countries were sung and Martelly made remarks in English when addressing the people of Curacao and in Creole when addressing the people of Haitian descent. The actions of the Curacao government evidence an intention to unify relations between both countries as opposed to divide. In light of the events that unfolded this week, it can be argued that the actions of The Bahamas government speak otherwise. Bahamians would have been equally interested to hear the remarks of Martelly.
The normal course of protocol for an official visit from a head of state would have been to receive a formal written request from the Haitian Embassy in The Bahamas addressed to the chief of protocol suggesting dates for the visit, names of individuals with whom the head of state would like to meet and the purpose of the visit (i.e., the specific topics to be discussed).
The protocol department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) would have determined availability and arranged the official itinerary of Martelly. As mentioned, the details of President Martelly’s visit were confirmed on Saturday, February 4, 2012. Martelly arrived in The Bahamas on Tuesday, February 7, 2012. The Bahamas MOFA had the entire working days of the 6th and 7th to inform the Bahamian people of Martelly’s visit and his proposed itinerary, just as the Haitian MOFA did in Haiti. Protocol and diplomacy appear to have escaped The Bahamas government on this matter which appears to have conducted protocol in reverse.
The overwhelming consensus among Bahamians is that our prime minister’s response to the matter was unacceptable to say the least. What is clear is that our prime minister appears to be out of touch with the concerns of his people. Moreover, the silence of most members of Parliament on this issue leaves little to be desired in the face of the public discussion that has taken place on this matter.
The recent visit has sparked the age old conversation on illegal immigration in our country, particularly among Haitian nationals. Haiti is a country that has been plagued by socio-economic and political instability. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the United States of America have primarily carried the burden of housing Haitian nationals in search of political asylum or refugee status. There is no doubt that CARICOM members would welcome trade opportunities with Haiti that will be mutually beneficial for our nations. A healthy and prosperous Haiti is in the best interest of all; The Bahamas included.
Nevertheless, the matter of illegal immigration in our country must be addressed by the government. It is wrong for Bahamians and parliamentarians to gloss over this issue of illegal immigration and allege that Bahamians are discriminative, racist and prejudiced in an attempt to silence Bahamians on this matter. Bahamians are generally welcoming people and recognize the contributions that foreigners make to build this country. However, this fact cannot be confused with the importance of enforcing Bahamian laws on illegal immigration. It is worth noting that other countries such as Jamaica and Barbados are also faced with the same challenges.
Many CARICOM countries already find it difficult to meet budget requirements with their limited resources and constrained revenue sources. Many have shared in the burdens of Haiti’s socio-economic and political instability through increased illegal immigration. Many have also provided aid and assistance to the government of Haiti over the years.
The Haitian Presence
In The Bahamas, there is a gray area that is expanding and will continue to have a vast impact upon our socio-economic position if we do not address the matter with expediency. There are so-called ‘shantytowns’ existing all over New Providence and throughout the Family Islands that successive governments have failed to clean up. Allegedly illegal immigrants of Haitian descent occupy Bahamian land free of charge, their children attend Bahamian public schools and they also utilize healthcare services. Bahamian taxpayers’ funds make it possible for government-run entities to function. In this sense, Bahamians believe they have every right to speak on the matter of illegal immigration and the effects it has upon Bahamian society.
Separate and apart from migrants that came here illegally, there are a group of dispossessed individuals who are aware of the fact that they have a constitutional right and are being overlooked. These individuals were born in The Bahamas and in most cases educated here. We must do our best to regularize such individuals. As long as the constitution provides the means, the constitutional right of this group of individuals should be honored without delay. What The Bahamas government must be careful not to do is to impose upon the Bahamian people the extreme liberal policy that Martelly is suggesting regarding our constitution in light of our very own economic position. To grant individuals born in The Bahamas to non-Bahamians citizenship upon birth will most certainly open the floodgates for increased migration to The Bahamas. Such a policy could negatively impact the preservation of the indigenous Bahamian population, who like the remainder of the Caribbean generally have a lower birth rate than Haitians. For instance, The Bahamas has a population of approximately 350,000; Barbados, 280,000; Jamaica, 2.8 million; Dominica, 72,000 and Curacao, 142,000. All of these countries, who together house a growing population of Haitians descendants, have not jointly accumulated the total population of Haiti, which is estimated to be 9.7 million.
More importantly and as a matter of urgency, The Bahamas government must ascertain the number of undocumented immigrants that exist in the country. The Netherland Antilles launched an immigration amnesty program called the “Brooks Tower Accord” that provided for undocumented aliens in the Netherland Antilles to register themselves, receive temporary permits and therefore legalize their status. The registration lasted for six weeks from November 3 – December 15, 2009. The agreement covered three categories. Immigrants who arrived before December 31, 2001 fell in Category I were able to apply for a permit on their own merit. Immigrants who arrived between January 1, 2002 to January 1 2006, fell in Category II and required their employers to apply on their behalf. Finally, immigrants who arrived after January 1, 2006 were not guaranteed regularization and would more than likely have to leave the country or be repatriated. Whereas there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the illegal immigration problem, our leaders should explore programs of this nature in formulating a solution and a strategy to the way forward.
Bahamians must continue to discuss this matter in the attempt to move our leaders to make significant progress on illegal immigration. We have elected successive governments to protect our borders, among other things, and they have been found wanting on the issue of illegal immigration. One thing is certain, we must continue to monitor the socio-economic and political position of Haiti to provide assistance where necessary.
By: Arinthia S. Komolafe