While the current administration has unapologetically wielded the issue of shantytowns and their association with Haitian migrants with an ease that should make all Bahamians of good conscience cringe, there is no getting around the fact that shantytown proliferation in The Bahamas has been a longstanding, thorny issue.
What is true is that there is a dearth of affordable, regular housing in New Providence and Abaco, where the country’s largest shantytowns once stood.
What is also true is that shantytowns are hazards on multiple levels and no nation with self-respect should stand by while her residents live in such sub-standard accommodations.
When the Minnis administration came to office, it promised to rid the country of shantytowns and proceeded to give at least the appearance of doing just that by forming the Shantytown Action Task Force.
The government then gave notice to shantytown residents in areas identified in New Providence and Abaco that they would have until August 10, 2018, to move out as the homes were scheduled for demolition.
Fred Smith, QC, then assisted residents of those communities by filing for a judicial review of the government’s actions.
Supreme Court Justice Cheryl Grant-Thompson then issued an injunction banning the demolition of shantytowns on New Providence and parts of Abaco, days before the government’s deadline.
She later granted an injunction at the government’s request to stop new construction in those shantytowns.
After Dorian wiped out much of the shantytowns on Abaco, the government declared the areas no-build zones and fenced them off.
It only took a matter of months to clear those properties Dorian hit, where no-build orders remain in effect, at last report.
However, this administration’s failure to put in place a robust residential rebuilding program on Abaco with manpower that clearly did not want to remain on New Providence, led to rebuilding by former Abaco shanty residents in The Farm and Farm Road shantytowns, which were less impacted by Dorian.
The government has taken the position that the new construction violates the injunction and has torn down dozens of homes in those two areas.
The government recently filed a summons to vary the injunction to exclude applicants who filed the judicial review who live in Abaco.
The applicants, meanwhile, had asked the court for the injunction to be extended to cover all shantytowns in The Bahamas or, in the alternative, all shantytowns on Abaco.
Grant-Thompson yesterday ordered that all areas of Abaco be protected under the injunction, chastised the government for its actions on Abaco after Dorian without leave of the court, and denied the request that the injunction cover the entire Bahamas.
She also instructed the government to get the court’s approval to conduct demolition of structures that it believes violate her order not to start any new construction.
Notably, just shy of three years after being requested, the judicial review remains unresolved.
That this matter of exigent national concern has languished in Grant-Thompson’s court, notwithstanding the challenges of COVID-19, speaks poorly of the effectiveness of our judicature.
That the government lacks the creativity or will to harness the labor force on Abaco, who claim they have nowhere else to go, to help rebuild Abaco, is shameful.
So often we hear scripture spewed from the mouths of politicians.
They appear to have forgotten, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” – the second greatest of God’s commandments, according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Bahamas should not countenance illegal building and the erection of unsafe communities anywhere in the country.
But no country worthy of claiming to be a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles should in effect throw people, particularly children, out of their homes and then demolish them without any regard to where they will live.
If people are found to be in The Bahamas illegally, then prosecute and deport them.
However, if they are legal residents and they are at risk of becoming homeless because of the actions of the government, then the government should assist with finding them suitable accommodations for a reasonable period of time.
And ministers of our government should tone down their thinly-veiled rancor when connecting the shantytowns to the Haitian community.
We know an election is coming, but it is beneath us all.
Shantytowns are a vexing problem, but they are far from our largest problem.
The Minnis administration needs to revisit its approach to this matter.
And the Supreme Court must work more expeditiously on its judicial review, so that all parties involved, including the people of The Bahamas, can have some closure.