Bahamas ramps it up against immigrants, housing pressure to blame after Dorian

Bert Wilkinson | 10/10/2019, 11:08 a.m.
Under pressure to provide housing for the displaced following the pounding the nation took from Hurricane Dorian last month
CBP Air and Marine Operations agents conduct search and rescue operations in Abaco Island and Marsh Harbour Bahamas on Sept. 5, 2019. The islands were devastated by Hurricane Dorian. CBP Photo Kris Grogan

Under pressure to provide housing for the displaced following the pounding the nation took from Hurricane Dorian last month, Bahamaian authorities have begun to suggest that immigrants who previously lived even legally in devastated areas should leave the country until living conditions improve.

The suggestion is aimed at foreigners who were either working or living in Abaco and Grand Bahama, the two hardest hit areas. Officials said in the past week that migrant workers who have lost their jobs because of the storm “need to go home.” If they insist on remaining, employers must be able to show that acceptable living conditions exist or their right to remain will be denied, Attorney General Carl Bethel said.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Hubert Minnis fears that too many may become dependent on a system that is already struggling to provide accommodation and other forms of relief to locals, most of whom lost everything when one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record stalled itself over Abaco and Grand Bahama for more than a day, leveling the islands, Abaco in particular. Officials have recovered close to 60 bodies amid fears that the death toll will rise as clean-up efforts intensify.

The government released a statement at the start of the week noting that “the applicant for a new work permit, or the renewal of an existing work permit, by a prospective employer of a non-Bahamian worker, will be required to satisfy immigration officials that satisfactory living accommodations have been arranged by that employer on behalf of the prospective worker, and that the said worker will not become a charge on the state or be permitted to live in sub-standard housing,” the statement noted. It also threatened arrest, criminal charges, detention and deportation of persons contravening these rules.

The latest missive from the government seems to signal a hardening of positions against some categories of immigrants. The island had already been battling with an exponential population growth thanks mostly to thousands of Haitian boat people who have washed up on their shores over the decades. Immigrants are thought to account for up to a third of the Bahamiam population.

As the new set of rules go out, Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest appeared to take the role of “good cop,” suggesting that cabinet should be “very sensitive” in dealing with immigrants, undocumented ones especially. This is as calls for mass deportation increase and as officials grappled with relief efforts post Dorian.

Turnquest stated, “We have to handle the matter with sensitivity because there has unfortunately been so much social media misinformation and sensationalism that has gone out that it has raised the ire of the Bahamian community. Unfortunately, sometimes we make some statements in anger that may have an incorrect impression on who we are as a people and our concern about these people as humans. We have to ensure that the international community understands our response, understands that we are responsible members of the global community and we appreciate our obligation to ensure that human rights are respected in all the things that we do in managing this situation that we have.”

He argued that cabinet does not want the international community to get the wrong impression about The Bahamas and its attitude towards immigrants, noting that authorities will still have to be “resolute with respect to illegal immigration.”

Haitian shanty towns in Abaco were among the hardest hit. Predictions that the death toll will rise exponentially are predicated on the belief that bodies lie under tons of upturned rubble in those areas. Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson has said that it makes little sense for the undocumented to believe that being in a government shelter would immunize them from arrest and deportation as shelters will not be used “to circumvent the law.”

The Bahamas’ neighbors and the international community have rushed to assist the archipelago in its more dire hour of need, sending human and material relief in the aftermath of the storm.