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2005-08-08 12:09:39

Corruption in Government Behind Illegal immigration Problems

Corrupt government officials refuse to get tough on squatters.

An illegal Haitian shantytown has sprung up in a pristine Abaco pine forest highlighting the depth of the national immigration problem.

In woodland miles off North Abaco's main roadway and near Green Turtle Cay, the 15-hut community is spread out over government land on the border of a national horse reserve.

"You don't see any of these squats being broken up and any of these people who build these shacks being dealt with," said Stephen Pedican, North Abaco's chief district councillor. "This is prime land and they [immigrants] are encroaching on the reserve for wild horses."

This problem underscores the illegal immigration woes that have plagued The Bahamas for decades and dominated the national agenda in recent months.

It's estimated that Haitians - many of them illegal immigrants - account for around 5,000 to 8,000 of Abaco's 15,000 population. Minister of Immigration Vincent Peet conceded recently that the real number of Haitian immigrants in the country was unknown. Unofficial estimates are as high as 60,000 out of a population of 300,000.

Speaking to the Guardian's investigative team during a recent tour of the area, Mr Pedican said he feared the number of squatters and structures in the valley would spread if authorities did not act soon. He added that the cesspools and garbage piles in the valley would eventually do 'unimaginable damage' to the forests.

"The place needs to be properly policed," said Assistant Superintendent Wayne Miller, officer in charge of Abaco. "It's a real challenge for law enforcement officers out there.

"We are trying our best but we need more resources because these people are going deep into the bushes to build."

ASP Miller said people had been arrested in the Valley for illegally pedalling alcohol. But when it came to stopping the squatters, the police had their hands tied, he added.

"That is not within our purview," he told the Guardian in an interview yesterday. "Our job is to support the Ministries of Works, Housing and Immigration in what they may be doing.

"There have been a number of raids with immigration," he said. "But we don't tear down houses, we need the Ministry of Works on that."

ASP Miller said he believed the only way the problem would be dealt with was if all government agencies created a joint task force. "I believe the government may already have a plan afoot," he added.

Abaco's outspoken anti- illegal immigration activist Jeff Cooper first discovered the Valley in December 2004 when there was only one house. Since that time he said he has charted activity in the area and reported it to the police, immigration and housing officials regularly.

"The police have known for months about this place," said Mr Cooper. "Each time I report it to the police, all they tell me is, 'We're going to investigate.'

"I even brought this to the attention of the government. I spoke with the Minister of Works [Bradley Roberts] and Shane Gibson [Minister of Housing]."

Mr Cooper pointed out one building in the Valley, which he claimed was a nightclub, liquor store and prostitution parlour.

He said he had lost confidence in the government's ability to deal with the problem after officials tipped off squatters of his activity in the area.

"I just found out some days ago that the same guy I was reporting them (illegal squatters) to was the guy coming back and telling them 'Jeff is coming' or 'they are having a raid,'" he revealed.

"So who can you trust in the government now?" he asked. "You've got to take it in you're own hands.

"We need a full investigation of all government departments because they are not doing the job," he added.

By: Raymond Kongwa, The Nassau Guardian

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