The Minnis administration is walking a tightrope.
In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, the Category 5 hurricane that irrevocably changed the landscapes of Abaco and parts of Grand Bahama, an age-old issue has been exposed: the Haitian situation.
What happens to the shantytown residents who survived the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the northern Bahamas?
Newly minted Minister of Immigration Elsworth Johnson is now responsible for policy that is being scrutinized by governments and news media the world over.
Johnson said the government has suspended the deportation of immigrants from the areas impacted by Hurricane Dorian, but there is no plan to grant them asylum.
Will the government eventually deport those with no status and stop renewing the work permits of those who have had work permits for the last 40 years?
The residents of The Mudd are described by many as the backbone of that island’s workforce. They do the jobs that Bahamians won’t, is the adage. But many of the residents in The Mudd are Bahamians, Haitian-Bahamians and Haitians with some form of status.
Many Bahamians are on social media and talk shows spouting vitriol about Haitians.
“They need to go back,” one man said on a talk show yesterday. Others say Haiti is a country with no God and that’s why the country was struck with the 2010 earthquake.
I wonder what The Bahamas did to deserve to be struck by one of the strongest hurricanes on record?
The topic of Haitians in The Bahamas is as sensitive an issue here as Mexicans and Muslims are in the U.S.
Thousands of survivors from the Haitian shantytowns on Abaco fled to New Providence in the aftermath of Dorian.
Johnson told our Rachel Knowles, who was writing for the New York Times, that, “Eventually persons will come out of those shelters, and we know that people are leaving those shelters, and if they’re not properly documented, then we apply the law.”
By all accounts, The Mudd and Pigeon Peas were destroyed by Dorian.
On Sunday, the government announced a six-month ban that will prevent people from building any new structures in the Abaco shantytowns.
“The purpose of the order is to allow for recovery efforts and the removal of storm debris related to Hurricane Dorian,” the government said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told The Nassau Guardian’s Jasper Ward that the Abaco shantytowns “will not be tolerated”.
“The government has made a determination that shantytowns are not in compliance with zoning codes,” he said.
“Thus, [they will] place individuals at health, environmental and other risks, especially a risk with hurricanes.
“All individuals must comply with our code. Those facilities will not be tolerated as we are a country of law.”
He said the government is considering making those shantytowns memorial sites.
It seems Dorian did what previous governments could not and what many residents on Abaco and many Bahamians have cried out for — an end to The Mudd.
Last year, the government announced that it would demolish shantytowns on New Providence by August of that year and those on Abaco by July 31, 2019.
The government appointed a dozen technical, religious and civic leaders to oversee the action.
Labour Minister Dion Foulkes, who headed that committee, said at the time that the government would help residents of the shantytowns to find new homes.
“You are dealing, traditionally, with an unregulated environment, where you have persons who have never ever, ever, even approached a landlord to rent an apartment or to rent some dwelling,” Foulkes said in August 2018.
“To the extent that we can assist, we believe that is our Christian duty.
“You have most Bahamians who, if not all, either own or rent homes or know the customs of approaching persons to rent – looking in The Tribune, looking in The Guardian, in The Punch classifieds to see what is available.
“To the extent that we can, we want to fulfill our Christian duty to make this transition as seamless as possible for the residents of the shantytowns.”
But local human rights activist Fred Smith, QC, called the government’s plan “reprehensible, illegal and an abuse”.
“It is impossible to abuse people humanely,” Smith said in 2018.
“This is an abuse, to bulldoze, eradicate, destroy and annihilate communities. Rather than do that, they should bring sanitation, bring building regulations, assist in rehabilitation and help to create better and more sanitary communities, instead of ethnically cleansing them.”
In August 2018, Supreme Court Justice Cheryl Grant-Thompson granted an injunction blocking the demolition of shantytown structures.
Lawyers representing a group of 177 shantytowns residents – including some people who live in Abaco shantytowns – filed an application for leave to apply for judicial review.
Following the action, the government attempted to turn its focus on the six shantytowns on Abaco, but Smith said, “…The injunction does indeed apply to houses in the Pigeon Pea and The Mudd.
“I don’t know why they think that the injunction doesn’t apply there.”
That case has been in limbo ever since.
A hearing was expected yesterday on that matter, but it was rescheduled. Until then, the injunction remains in place.
Smith told National Review yesterday that he has no regrets about his opposition to the shantytown action.
“I have absolutely no regrets about having mounted and continuing to pursue on behalf of human beings cases which seek to protect and promote their rights, and I don’t consider as some of the memes and voice notes and other social media comments have been made…that I have blood on my hands,” he said.
“Fred Smith and the human rights association didn’t tell anybody in any shantytown to stay in the shantytown before Hurricane Dorian hit. That is absolute nonsense and absurdity, neither did Fred Smith or anybody from Rights Bahamas ever promote the suggestion that people should be encouraged or allowed to live in what can be regarded as squalid or unsanitary or unsafe conditions.”
It is impossible to say whether the government’s plan to eradicate shantytowns would have worked, but it is a fact that dozens of bodies have been recovered in The Mudd since the passage of Dorian.
Many residents simply refused to leave their homes.
On the Saturday before Dorian pulverized Abaco, a pastor, equipped with a translator, law enforcement, megaphone and the local media in tow, begged residents to evacuate.
The Tribune’s Rashad Rolle was there as Pastor Wilson Isnord moved throughout The Mudd, then being pelted with rain from Dorian’s outer bands, and begged residents to, “Get out and evacuate.”
But, as Rolle reported, many ignored him.
“Some people gathered and listened to Pastor Isnord’s pleas, others mocked him, but most paid him no mind,” Rolle wrote.
“Several people, including a man with an 11-month-old child in his arms, said they didn’t know where the shelters were and therefore didn’t plan to go.”
The history of The Mudd and Pigeon Peas has become folklorish.
In 2018, former Central and South Abaco MP Edison Key told The Guardian that Scott and Matson (S&M) Farms brought in 1,000 Haitian workers to gather crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and pineapples during the 1950s.
Key said when that company closed down, the Haitians started working for local farmers. Those who remained started what is now Pigeon Peas in the 1970s, according to Key, with The Mudd sprouting up later.
Looters, marauders and guns
Hours after Hurricane Dorian exited Abaco, stories emerged that a marauding group of men with guns were moving throughout the island, looting. These men, according to Facebook posts, WhatsApp voice notes and secondhand stories, were Haitians from the shantytowns.
One popular post was about the community on Abaco called Regattas and how the Haitians were taking over.
The government did confirm that looting was taking place on the island, but no official said that it was exclusively Haitians.
When a team from The Nassau Guardian visited Abaco, they witnessed dozens of locals – women, children and men — looting a food store. But it was unclear to the team what nationality the looters were. One said they saw what appeared to be Haitians, and another said some appeared to be Bahamians. How can you tell?
Our reporter asked one of the people outside the food store, “Are you all looting?”
The person responded, “Yeah.”
The looting continues. Commissioner of Police Anthony Ferguson said on Monday, when pressed, that several people on Abaco were arrested in connection with looting.
“Just overnight we have arrested persons — last night. I am pretty sure that as long as people continue to go afoul of the law, we will arrest them,” he said.
Following the storm, Lian Kaighin, a resident of Marsh Harbour, told The Nassau Guardian that she had to fire her shotgun three times to prevent a group of nine men from taking over her home.
“The bad part about it was the way they talked back to me,” she recalled.
“I knew immediately that they were not Abaco people and that might sound bad to say and don’t hate me for it.”
The reports vary. Some took clothes from homes, while others took watches, wallets and food.
Following the reports, the government sent hundreds of police and Royal Bahamas Defence Force officers to restore order to Abaco.
Roughly 4,000 people left Abaco and Grand Bahama. Many are now in shelters across New Providence.
Many of the evacuees in the shelters are Haitian or Haitian-Bahamians with nowhere to go.
The New York Times reported that one woman, Kerline Mildor, who escaped Dorian with her three children and only the clothes on her back, was not satisfied with the food in the shelter.
“They brought us here and told us that it was going to be good,” she told the New York Times in a September 23 article.
“They serve us rotten food and have us sleeping on the floor. Some dogs are living better. I have seen dogs who live better, in very nice cages.”
Many of the world media have pointed to The Bahamas’ dependence on Haitian labor and the stigma of being a Haitian in The Bahamas.
In a September 12 article, The Washington Post pointed to the dichotomy between the residents in the ultra-elite Baker’s Bay community and the laborers from The Mudd.
“The inequality between rich and poor, tourist and worker, was laid bare as the storm approached,” The Post wrote.
“When Dorian made landfall on Great Abaco Island as a Category 5 hurricane, the people of Baker’s Bay had cleared out. Its homeowners, almost all seasonal residents with primary homes in the United States or Europe, hired local workers to put up hurricane shutters and prepare for the storm while they tracked it from afar.”
The Mudd and Pigeon Peas have been a problem for decades. Every prime minister of The Bahamas has had to contend with it.
None has mastered it. Dorian has. But now thousands are homeless and afraid. Where do they go?
The question: what happens to the hundreds of shantytown residents who survived the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the northern Bahamas?