‘Dangerous & reckless’
Last Friday, local human rights group Rights Bahamas appeared before the 172nd session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Kingston, Jamaica, to give a presentation on the state of migrants in The Bahamas.
The group, led by Stephanie St. Fleur, Louby Georges, Dawrin Thompson and Fred Smith, QC, painted a very interesting picture of The Bahamas.
The rhetoric used by Rights Bahamas was poorly worded, at times baseless and wholly disappointing.
The presentations were lacking in content, context and depth. It was embarrassing to watch.
Here’s a sample of what was said.
St. Fleur told the commission that, “Migrant communities in The Bahamas live in fear of verbal and physical abuse; the anxiety of their homes being invaded and of being expelled from the only country they know as home.
“They live in a state of terror.
“They are scared of a corrupt immigration [department], which routinely uses detention as a means to extort bribes in return for release.”
According to St. Fleur, The Bahamas started “mass raids of migrant communities”, mainly in Haitian shantytowns and “illegally arrested citizens”.
Georges said that The Bahamas’ immigration laws are discriminatory.
“Anti-Haitian prejudice is deeply ingrained in The Bahamas,” he said.
“Haitians are a scapegoat for any problem.”
Now, this particular point, that anti-Haitian prejudice runs deep and that Haitians are used as a scapegoat for any problem, is subjective but something that I agree with.
But it is not the policy of the government.
It is an unfortunate social issue that plagues the country.
Georges continued, “The Bahamas is guilty of state-sanctioned, institutionalized terror against Haitian communities.
“Freedom of movement in The Bahamas no longer exists. Everyone is now subject to random stops, searches and detentions.”
I don’t think Georges understands what state-sanctioned, institutionalized terror means.
State-sanctioned, institutionalized terror is when a government drops sarin gas on its people, killing dozens.
That’s what happened in Aleppo, Syria, in 2017.
State-sanctioned, institutionalized terror is when 43 students from a teachers college in Mexico are arrested by local police and never seen again.
While The Bahamas is far from perfect and has many mountains to climb, it is patently false to say that the country is “guilty of state-sanctioned, institutionalized terror” against any group of people.
It is also blatantly false that freedom of movement no longer exists in The Bahamas.
As a first-generation Bahamian of Haitian descent, Georges knows better. He is a leader in his community and should be careful with the language he uses and the images he paints.
In response to these claims, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson, who represented the government during the hearing, said Rights Bahamas’ claims were “unsubstantiated”.
“As pointed out in our preliminary observations, many of the allegations suffer from lack of proper substantiation,” Johnson said.
He added, “With respect to the allegation of entrenched racial discrimination and xenophobia, it is expected in some society where there are significant migrant populations, there are bound to be persons who have anti-migrant sentiments.
“Such behavior is neither tolerated nor condoned, and certainly not encouraged by the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.”
For years, Rights Bahamas has, in its own words, sought to shed light on the plight facing migrants in The Bahamas, particularly Haitians.
Thousands of Haitian migrants flee Haiti each year in search of a better life. The Bahamas is at the doorstep of the United States, the final destination for many migrants. The sloops pass through our waters, land on our shores and the people are either caught or make it into the communities.
It is a vexing problem that has plagued The Bahamas for decades.
Allegations of abuse at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre are not new.
In May 2013, a group of Cuban detainees attempted to escape from the facility.
The men alleged that they were abused by five marines following the attempted escape.
The allegations touched off a firestorm of controversy and protests from a group of Miami-based Cuban advocates who labeled the incident an “abuse of power”.
The alleged abuse led to a Royal Bahamas Defence Force hearing and an inquiry into the administration and management of the detention center led by retired Justice Emmanuel Osadebay.
In 2014, The Nassau Guardian reported that a Haitian woman who admitted she snuck into the country illegally on a Haitian sloop gave birth on the floor of the detention center.
‘We are not the enemy’
When he addressed the commission on Friday, Fred Smith was his usual passionate, hyperbolic self.
He said, “We are not the enemy. We love our Bahamas.
“We do not want to beat The Bahamas internationally.”
He added, “We implore The Bahamas government to stop treating those who are born in The Bahamas and who have lived there all of their lives as if they are illegal migrants.
He said, “… Pass a law in Parliament giving all those who are born in The Bahamas the right to remain in The Bahamas and they are not subject to the terror, the real terror, of being picked up at random, held in detention indefinitely and deported.”
He also urged the government to allow Haitians who enter The Bahamas illegally to be allowed to live and work in the community.
But Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest said yesterday that The Bahamas is a small country with limited resources and cannot absorb any and everybody.
“Any suggestion that we ought to just fling open the doors and every and anybody can come is inherently disadvantageous and dangerous and reckless to the Bahamian people,” Turnquest said.
The immigration bill
While in Jamaica, Rights Bahamas also took aim at the proposed Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, 2018.
St. Fleur told the commission that, “The government is seeking to institutionalize and legalize discrimination as part of a proposed new Immigration Act – the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.
“Perversely, The Bahamas seeks to make stateless persons who were born in The Bahamas aliens and liable to be deported to Haiti, while at the same time annually giving thousands of Haitians work visas to come to The Bahamas and investors residency and citizenship.”
Georges said, “The government is now attempting to pass laws to legalize its policies of abuse.
“The proposed new Immigration Act seeks to establish the detention center as legal.
“It makes people born in The Bahamas who have a right to citizenship aliens [and] liable to be deported if they do not register between 18 and 19.”
Both Georges and St. Fleur clearly have not read the bill, or if they have, not in great detail and lack a basic understanding of it.
The bill seeks to address many of the longstanding issues surrounding citizenship, immigration and the rights of migrants.
The document was authored by the Law Reform Commission, headed by Dame Anita Allen, the former president of the Court of Appeal.
The bill’s intent is to repeal the current Immigration Act and the current Bahamas Nationality Act and establish new parameters for asylum seekers in The Bahamas.
If passed and enacted, it will change the landscape of immigration and matters of citizenship in the country.
Under the bill, those who were born in The Bahamas after July 9, 1973 to parents who were not Bahamian, and failed to apply to be registered as citizens by their 19th birthday, would lose that right and would have six months after the law takes effect to apply for some form of status or risk being deported.
Currently, Article 7 of The Bahamas constitution states that a person born in The Bahamas after independence, “neither of whose parents is a citizen of The Bahamas shall be entitled, upon making application on his attaining the age of eighteen years or within twelve months thereafter to be registered as a citizen of The Bahamas”.
The constitution is silent on what happens to these individuals before their 18th birthday, or after their 19th birthday.
Article 9 of the constitution states that a person born outside The Bahamas to a Bahamian mother is not automatically granted citizenship, but has a right to apply from their 18th birthday to their 21st birthday, to be registered as a citizen.
The constitution is also silent on what happens before these people reach age 18 and after they reach age 21.
The new law would also establish that these people lose their constitutional right to be registered after their 21st birthday.
However, the new law establishes a “right of abode”, or a right to live, in The Bahamas for anyone born in The Bahamas to foreign parents while they are a minor – before they reach age 18.
It also establishes a right to live in The Bahamas for anyone born outside The Bahamas to a Bahamian mother, while that person is still a minor.
These minors would be able to apply for a resident belonger’s permit which could be approved by the immigration director, “provided that such an applicant is in the custody and care of a parent or guardian who has the right of abode in The Bahamas”.
For these people, the right of abode would grant them the right to legally work in The Bahamas, and reside in The Bahamas, up to the time they apply to be registered as citizens and while that application is being processed and/or appealed.
For those whose constitutionally mandated time to apply to be registered has expired, they would have six months from the passage of the new law to apply for some form of status, such as naturalization, permanent residency, etc., and would have the right of abode pending the determination and/or appeal.
Those who do not apply risk being imprisoned and/or deported.
The law establishes a Nationality Advisory Commission and an Immigration Appeals Tribunal to make the process of applying for citizenship and appeals more transparent.
The proposed legislation would obligate the minister of immigration to provide reasons for the rejection of a citizenship application.
It would establish the right of people to appeal their deportation within seven days of being ordered to leave the country.
It also establishes clear stipulations for the deportation and removal of people from The Bahamas.
The legislation establishes in law a separate facility for unaccompanied minors who arrive in the country illegally and mothers accompanied by their minor children who arrive in the country illegally.
The bill does much, much more.
If the bill moves forward as it is, it will be groundbreaking and will address many of the concerns Rights Bahamas has raised.
Instead of going into the international community and giving The Bahamas a black eye, Rights Bahamas should take a day and read the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, 2018.
After doing so, its leaders should seek to be more accurate and informed in their utterances and paint a more accurate picture of The Bahamas.
They claim to love The Bahamas.
Though it appears that painting an accurate picture of The Bahamas is the furthest thing from their minds when they seek to paint the country that has facilitated citizenship for thousands of children born to Haitians who entered illegally as a “perverse”, “abusive” perpetrator of “state-sanctioned terror”.