Leadership and common decency

Hurricane Dorian thrust tragedy upon the Bahamian nation.

The island of Abaco has been scarred; portions left in shambles.

Grand Bahama has been slammed; its capital city, Freeport, three weeks after the passage of the storm, remains without reliable potable water supply.

Disasters bring out the best and/or the worst in people.

Countless Bahamian families have taken in and provided emergency shelter to extended family members and relatives as well as to friends and, in some instances, strangers.

Such magnanimity is being matched by the resolve and generosity of spirit of Bahamian civic and NGOs including the Bahamas Red Cross, the HeadKnowles Bahamas Foundation, the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs and the disaster response arms of all church denominations and countless unaffiliated volunteers who present themselves at relief centers to offer working hands.

All this contributes to the resolve of Bahamians to overcome the adversities created by the hurricane and to rebuild Abaco and Grand Bahama.

That resolve is strengthened by the overwhelming international response to our tragedy.

In the midst of all the good being done by so many to reduce the suffering of the thousands of individuals, there has emerged a nasty undercurrent of resentment, especially on social media, attacking people of Haitian heritage or nationality as culpable for this natural disaster, as unfairly receiving assistance offered by the government and from international relief agencies and as being overwhelmingly responsible for reported looting in Abaco.

While believable accounts have been recorded of residents of The Mudd and Pigeon Peas rummaging through storm-damaged food stores in the days following the storm, the several reports of arrests for vandalizing marine and hardware businesses in the Marsh Harbour area do not suggest that the suspects are of Haitian origin. Similarly, allegations of home invasions have not generally identified intruders as of Haitian origin.

What the looting suggests is that security arrangements for Marsh Harbour were lacking in advance of a storm and efforts to address the deficit following the storm have been woefully inadequate. The principal areas of business and residence on Abaco are small; policing the areas should not have posed a challenge to an organized police or defense force.

Some are relying on the lack of immigration status of hurricane victims as justification for denying assistance to people of Haitian origin and advocate instead their early deportation.

Others have shockingly sought to find Biblical justification for the exclusion of individuals of Haitian origin from assistance, ignoring Biblical admonitions for Christians to be their brothers’ keepers and Christ’s teaching that whatever is done for the least of His brethren is done for Him.

The government by all reports has not permitted negative social commentary to influence its policy of granting lifesaving and life-supporting assistance to all victims of the storm including those of Haitian origin or heritage regardless of their immigration status.

However, more recently, members of government have issued statements vowing to follow the law dictating the repatriation of individuals found in The Bahamas without proper immigration status regardless of their status as storm victims.

While it is true that the great majority of individuals sheltered in government-operated emergency shelters are of Haitian heritage, it is also true that the vast majority of these individuals hold Bahamian immigration status, large numbers of whom were born and raised in The Bahamas.

Many evacuees of Haitian origin require emergency shelter because most do not have the wide network of relatives in other parts of The Bahamas who are able to take them in, as has been the case for those of longstanding Bahamian heritage.

There have been no reports of hurricane evacuees escaping emergency shelters in Nassau to avoid detection by immigration authorities. Instead, there are stories of evacuees registering their children for school and seeking to obtain copies of their personal documents – birth certificates, passports and NIB cards – all evidence of status in the country.

Threats of looming deportations are wasted on those with status. It is important that the authorities demonstrate true leadership in this matter.

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