Bahamas struggles to enact more humane citizenship laws

Bert Wilkinson | 3/29/2018, 1:41 p.m.

Of the 15 nations in the Caribbean Community bloc of nations, it is perhaps easier to become a citizen in any of those countries than in the Bahamas, with its maze of very restrictive, parochial immigration laws.

But if government and some civil society groups as well as some churches have their way, that could change in the coming months, and Bahamian women who now do not enjoy the same rights as the men will soon have the same entitlements and obligations as the men automatically do.

The administration of Prime Minister Hubert Minnis is moving to amend the country’s laws to allow all children born outside of the multi-island archipelago to Bahamian women to automatically become Bahamian citizens.

More than a year ago, the administration of previous Prime Minister Perry Christie had taken the issue to a referendum, asking Bahamians to indicate whether they want the country’s highly insular laws to be amended or remain as they are. A key component of that referendum attempt was the fact that it is much easier for a Bahamian male to pass on citizenship to a child than a female. Critics say the attempt failed in part because Christie’s government had by then become unpopular and was eventually voted out of office.

The idea is now for the Status of Children Act to be amended to allow unmarried men living in the Bahamas and foreign women automatic rights to citizenship. The Nationality Act is also being looked at in what officials are saying is the most comprehensive attempt to deal with an issue that has dogged successive administrations for decades.

Bahamians almost to a fault have been very protective of their citizenship, fearing that if qualification is made easier, the island chain could be overrun by people from all over the world, especially poor people from neighboring Haiti, who often wash up on shores in rickety vessels seeking a better life.

Immigration officials estimate that approximately 75,000 Haitians are living on various islands, most of them illegally. They account for approximately 23 percent of the population. There are also thousands from other Caribbean states, including hundreds of Jamaicans, Guyanese, Trinidadians and others, working as teachers, police officers and other professionals.

As an indication of how protective islanders are of things Bahamian, the country is a key member of CARICOM but has ensured that it is not an active player in the free single-trading market system. A key component of that very system would be free movement and free travel of participating nations. So far, Nassau wants none of it.

Bahamians often say they fear being overrun by the poorer people from the south Caribbean.

A recommendation in the proposed amended laws would allow children of unwed Bahamian fathers with foreign mothers and married Bahamian women living abroad automatic entitlements to citizenship once they have filed the necessary documents and if they have no felony convictions.

The current laws also make it harder for women with foreign spouses to pass on citizenship to children, whether they were born in the Caribbean or Timbuktu.

“My government will make changes to the Immigration Act to ensure that all children born to Bahamian women, single or married, out of the Bahamas are automatically conferred citizenship,” a defiant Minnis said recently.