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Hell on the High Seas

When Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis visited Haiti one year ago this month, the Bahamian and Haitian delegations agreed to undertake joint initiatives that could contribute to reducing the flow of migration to The Bahamas.

The agreement was made during a meeting between Minnis and Haitian President Jovenal Moise in Port-au-Prince.

The two leaders also emphasized the need to develop a maritime agreement for maritime border control.

We were told this agreement would encourage “closer collaboration between national, regional and international law enforcement institutions, including information-sharing for greater effectiveness in combating illegal immigration, illicit trafficking in narcotics, the smuggling of migrants and transnational organized crime”.

The flow of illegal migrants has continued steadily, however.

The Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) said it apprehended up to 700 Haitians in 2018.

In the first week of 2019, authorities said more than 300 were apprehended attempting to enter The Bahamas illegally. Almost 200 were captured in the first five days of this year.

We, of course, have no way of knowing how many of them slipped through undetected. In the same way increased apprehensions do not necessarily mean a worsening problem, decreased apprehensions are not necessarily evidence that the situation is improving.

The migrants are being aided by a local network, according to Immigration Minister Brent Symonette.

“The people do not act alone,” he said last month. “There are people in Nassau and in The Bahamas that are aiding and abetting criminal action. When we catch them, the full extent of the law will come down on them as well.”

But while we have been seeing migrants taken to court and charged with illegal landing, we have not seen strong action taken against smugglers and others who aid this decades-old trade.

It seems one effective way of dealing with this complex problem would be to get serious about prosecuting those who facilitate migrant smuggling. But officials often say that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to identify the captains of the vessels.

“A lot of times when we apprehend a boat, no one owns up to being the captain,” Symonette said.

“The boat mysteriously has no captain because, obviously, there is a degree of fear, and so we do the best we can. We do the best to make sure the boats are not available. It’s a big problem.”

Yesterday, the 18 survivors of a tragic sloop accident off Abaco just over a week ago pleaded guilty to illegal landing. They were turned over to the Department of Immigration.

Some of the survivors had bruises about the body. The only woman in the group limped into the courthouse and back onto the bus that transported them there. She had a swollen foot and no crutches.

The migrants will be sent back to the home they left in search of a better life.

Twenty-eight others who perished when the sloop ran aground were buried in The Bahamas — 22 on New Providence and nine on Abaco.

An additional 30-plus migrants are believed to be lost at sea.

Survivors who were rescued after a Haitian sloop ran aground off Abaco in early February.

No captain was identified.

Sadly, the latest tragedy was a replay of what we have seen over many years.

In 2008, at least 20 Haitians drowned off The Bahamas after their boat capsized. There were only three known survivors. Fishermen reported hearing screams as the boat went down.

That accident happened about 150 miles from Miami, after the boat left Nassau with a reported plan to stop in Bimini before sailing to Florida.

In 2012, 152 Haitians were picked up after their boat ran aground near Mangrove Cay, Andros. At least a dozen were feared dead.

Two months earlier, 11 Haitians were killed after their boat capsized in Bahamian waters.

In 2013, up to 30 Haitians were killed after the vessel they were on ran aground in the southern Bahamas.

There have been other such tragedies in Bahamian waters. Other drownings have occurred near Turks and Caicos as well as off Cuba.

As with previous tragedies, the recent deaths of Haitian migrants elicited muted compassion among some Bahamians. There was no great national expression of sympathy over the horrific accident.

“You must implore them to refrain from taking such dangerous voyages on the open seas,” said Bishop Simeon Hall at the funeral for the group buried on New Providence on Sunday.

“Indeed, to be poor and destitute is still far better than to be dead and gone.”

The Haitian community has been urged many times over the years to do just that, but if anyone is sending that message to Haitians in Haiti, the message is not resonating.

In large numbers, Haitians are risking their lives in hopes of bettering their circumstances.

As preparations were being made to bury the dead from the latest boating tragedy, angry protesters in Port-au-Prince demanded the resignation of the Haitian president over rising inflation and demands over how Petro Caribe funds had been spent.

While Minnis was “impressed” with the Haitian president a year ago, Haiti’s deep economic troubles continue to fuel unrest.

“I have never seen such love, passion and admiration demonstrated by a populace for its president,” the Bahamian prime minister said during that Haiti visit.

“This shows that they are convinced and believe, like I do, that he is on the right track in developing a new and better Haiti, as we are doing for The Bahamas.

“More moving to me was when the president explained to the populace that, as we move forward in a better direction and to develop a better Haiti, we must experience some degree of pain. That is the same thing I tell my people at home.”

Although successive administrations have met with Haitian officials in attempts at curbing the illegal migration problem, The Bahamas — an archipelagic nation with a population of under 400,000 and positioned south of the United States of America — continues to struggle with the ongoing influx of undocumented migrants from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which has a population of 11 million.

Hall said the deaths of these individuals desperately seeking to better their conditions and those of their families, bring into focus the urgent need for regional and international long-term aid, directed in a strategic and efficient manner, which would directly benefit the least, the lost and the left-out in the Republic of Haiti.

Woman running and a fire

Residents run past burning barricades during a strike that is part of protests demanding to know how Petro Caribe funds have been used by the current and past administrations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in November. AP

“It is somewhat duplicitous that other countries in need, with citizens with lighter hues and complexions, seem to receive donor aid quicker and with less strings attached,” Hall said.

“And yet this tragedy also brings into focus the urgent need for the political and economic leaders of [Haiti] to take a deep, introspective look at themselves.”

 But we have heard that all before.

The difficulty for The Bahamas and other nations heavily impacted by illegal immigration is there is no quick fix to Haiti’s troubles. For the many Haitians who face desperate conditions on a daily basis, the hopes for a better life will likely continue to outweigh the grave risks associated with these smuggling operations.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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