The Bahamas’ newly elected government is moving to repatriate more than 1,000 Haitian boat people who have made the dangerous crossing to the archipelago in recent weeks and authorities say they fear that more will come in the near future despite the fact that they are not welcomed.
In the past week, the administration of Prime Minister Phillip Davis airlifted more than 500 Haitians from the southeastern Inagua Island to Cap-Haïtien in Haiti and additional flights are being arranged to cater for the remainder, officials said.
Bahamian officials had expressed fears about the country being overwhelmed by boat people in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti and the early July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Recent arrivals of large groups of Haitians have confirmed fears that economic and political stability at home would convert into the arrival of a flotilla of Haitian refugees seeking to settle in The Bahamas.
An additional 1,000 will be sent back from Tuesday of this week, Labor and Immigration Minister Keith Bell told reporters at the weekend. He and Security Minister Wayne Munroe also issued a joint statement vowing that the cabinet will take action to stem the flow of migrants to The Bahamas.
“The number one priority of the government is to defend the territorial sovereignty of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas while ensuring that the Bahamian people are protected. To this end, no resources will be spared as all involved agencies work towards addressing this situation. In the face of unprecedented levels of Haitian migrant activity that has inundated countries throughout the region, the government has taken decisive action to scale up operations. These measures have resulted in the interception of migrant vessels in the southern waters of The Bahamas, preventing passage into the central Bahamas near New Providence, where they were typically intercepted in past years. The routes to New Providence and other islands have effectively been cordoned off,” the statement said.
More than a quarter of The Bahamas’ population of about 300,000 is made up of Haitian immigrants who landed there in recent decades. Successive governments have struggled with this issue while trying to deal with the country’s complex immigration laws which do not grant automatic citizenship to the offspring of migrants born in the country. Officials argue that this influx puts strain on health, education and other services. In some cases, the immigrants are too poor to construct proper homes and end up building unsightly shanty towns in the tourist paradise.
Several Caribbean Community and associate nations have had to grapple with the arrival of large groups of Haitians including The Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, Guyana and Suriname among others.
In June, Guyana abolished visa free travel for Haitians, contending that the country was being used as a human trafficking and smuggling destination for Haitians heading to neighboring South American countries like Brazil and French Guiana where they remain temporarily before making the dangerous land and sea trek north to Mexico and the U.S.
And earlier this year, Suriname suspended charter flights from Haiti for reasons similar to that of neighboring Guyana.
The actions by Guyana and Suriname triggered criticism in the community as Haiti is a full member of the 15-nation bloc where nationals travel visa free and can remain, in most cases in any member state, for up to six months with documentation hassles.
Reiterating its instant deportation policy, The Bahamian government said it is getting help from the U.S. coast guard via ships and helicopters as it warned Haitians not to make the journey.
“We want to express in the strongest possible terms to the citizens of Haiti that the journey by boat to The Bahamas is a dangerous one, and we have deployed our assets and resources to prevent entry into our territorial waters. When intercepted, you will be quickly processed and returned home. We are resolute in defending and protecting our borders. We do not yet know how long this spike in illegal migrants will continue; however, the government will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the Bahamian people, empowering our men and women on the front lines and ensuring that the migrants are treated humanely and repatriated swiftly.”