Remarks delivered to the 2015 WACC-Caribe Regional Seminar and Assembly: “Strengthening Communication Rights for Migrants in the Host Countries of the Caribbean – Strategies For Integration And Survival”
Good Afternoon to my extended family in the region,
It is a privilege to join this esteemed assembly of the World Association of Christian Communication (WACC) to discuss the strengthening communication rights for migrants in the host countries of the Caribbean region. My contribution speaks to life as an immigrant of African descent in the Bahamas, with a particular emphasis on those of Haitian ancestry. My contribution speaks to the deep-seated cultural attitudes amongst Bahamians that deny migrants not only communication rights but also the right to basic human dignities.
It is based on my work in the field as a journalist in the Bahamas, where I have seen how cultural attitudes hinder any attempt to engender and protect immigrant rights. The Bahamian society is so exacerbated by what it calls the Haitian Problem there is simply no appetite for even speaking about immigrant rights.
The Haitian diaspora in the Bahamas is perhaps one of the largest diaspora populations on this side of the world outside of Canada and the United States, so it is certainly a community to take note of. And the Haitian experience in the Bahamas is instructive in the global context, for as disturbing as the condition may be inside the Bahamas, it is a situation not unlike that faced by other migrants of African descent in countries around the world in North America to Europe and beyond.
A Maligned Nation
Just weeks ago, we entered the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent. Tomorrow, on January 10, the Bahamas commemorates Majority Rule Day. This pubic holiday celebrates the achievement of universal suffrage in the Bahamas and the election of the first black majority government. It is therefore timely for us to look at the predicament of immigrants of African descent in the region, and in my case the Bahamas, because many of the challenges they face in host countries are part of the legacy of mental slavery and post-colonialism.
Across the globe, ideologies of white supremacy and lingering racial prejudice remain at the heart of cultural attitudes towards migrants, particularly migrants descending from Haiti, the most valiant Caribbean symbol of African liberation and resistance.
It is no secret; there is a global perspective about Haiti being a poor, menacing and ungovernable black nation that was artfully constructed by colonial powers and has been cynically maintained by their emissaries ever since. It continues to undermine Haiti’s much needed neo-colonial liberation, its much deserving reparation, and the acceptance of Haitian people across the world.
Many Bahamians have fully absorbed a host of subversive perspectives on Haiti. On daytime talk radio there have been callers who suggest, the way in which Haitians overthrew the French demonstrates that “Haitian people are inherently violent and deserving of the abuse they receive at the hands of [authorities]”. That perspectives like these have been seeded in the hearts and minds of some of our people is deeply troubling and very revealing. It is an indictment on our education system.
So with that in mind, and in the spirit of honest communication, I will attempt to unpack the so-called Haitian Problem. In the context of communication studies, my presentation is an exercising in re-framing the issue. As we know, the communication frame represents a point of view and it shapes how we construct our sense of reality.
What’s the Problem?
Based on the dominant narrative, Haitians are viewed as the source of all social ills in the Bahamas. There is a persistent belief that the country is flooded with illegal Haitians, who are slowly or quickly (depending on your perspective) taking over; that the country is small and cannot handle the influx of all these immigrants who threaten the national and cultural sovereignty of the Bahamas, particularly because they are prolific breeders who procreate at a higher rate than Bahamians; that Haitian immigrants have no respect for the laws of the land in the Bahamas; they are criminals or criminally minded and threaten our national security; they squat on our public lands, drain the public purse and hog up public services; they are nasty people who live in squalor.
I know it sounds like a serious problem; it sounds like we are a country under attack and the enemy is the Haitian people. But please, shed no tears. And do not be fooled by the hysteria.
Many of the Haitians who give rise to the perception that the Bahamas is overrun by illegals are in fact Bahamian born children with Haitian parentage, who are part of a modern generation of undocumented Bahamians living as second class citizens. These children must wait until they are 18 years old to apply for their Bahamian citizenship to be recognised. And once they apply, they are faced with a partial system that actively works to undermine their constitutional rights. The procedures at the Department of Immigration lack transparency. Application documents are lost repeatedly; applicants over the course of years must resubmit documents two, three, four times over; they are forced to wait an exorbitant amount of time with no explanation, sometimes 10 years and more; and while they wait for their applications they face harassment and discrimination.
Although these Bahamians born of Haitian ancestry have a constitutional entitlement for their citizenship to be recognized, they are perceived as having no rights to citizenship. Those who are successful in gaining citizenship still feel rejected by the wider society.
Furthermore, data shows that Haitians are not overrunning our free public services. A 2005 report of the International Organisation for Migration revealed that only 8.8 per cent of all school children in free public schools were Haitian. Haitians constituted just over 11 per cent of hospital admissions in 2001 (although they made almost 20 per cent of all outpatient visits to public clinics and hospitals). Where Haitian nationals utilised public health services disproportionately to the size of their total population, it was found primarily in areas where the population density of Haitians was high, as Haitians tend to live communally.
The 2005 IOM data is in critical need of updating, but in the absence of current research, hyperbolic propaganda is still not a prudent alternative. Considering cultural attitudes have been proven in the past to fuel misplaced hysteria, the need for evidence-based rational debate, particularly in areas that are quantifiable, is a must.
Despite the perception that Haitians squat on public lands, the unplanned dwellings known as Haitian squatter communities are often located on privately held lands, and the Haitians are paying land tenants. These communities, although they do not always adhere to building codes and land use regulations, whether on private or public property, are not fly by night dwellings. They are organized communities with history going back 30 years or more in some cases.
A respected local columnist Larry Smith recently published an editorial, “New Immigration Policy Feeds into Bahamian Fear and Loathing of Haitian Community”, in which he pointed out: “We eagerly employ Haitians in every menial, minimum wage job available, and rent them substandard housing as slumlords. In fact, this contradiction is at the very root of the so-called Haitian problem.”
Mr Smith was also referring to the fact that Haitians are employed all across the country by Bahamians. Anyone who knows anything about immigrant populations knows that immigrants only migrate where there is opportunity. In 2003, the Department of Immigration issued 4,546 work permits to Haitians, primarily in the category of handyman/gardener and farming.
While I don’t have repatriation statistics in the same year, it is still instructive to look at the 2013 data, which indicates the Bahamian government repatriated approximately 3000 migrants in total from 24 countries. Of them, 83 per cent were from Haiti. It would appear, far more Haitians are legitimately employed in the country than they are repatriated for illegal entry or other immigration infractions.
In 2013, the Bahamian government spent $1.2 million for repatriation exercises. The Detention Centre had an approved budget of $260,000. But in that same year, according to the Department of Immigration, it generated over $20.5 million in revenue in just 6-months. Given our geography, the various factors we have no control over (specifically, the economic situation in Haiti), and the offsetting revenue generation capacity of the Department of Immigration (not to mention the money extorted in the underground market), I question whether the financial cost of repatriating immigrants is even truly that burdensome for the Bahamas? The Department of Immigration is clearly a money-making arm of government, and perhaps the cost of repatriation could be considered a mere cost of doing business.
On the flip side we can also look at the 12,600 Haitians who are registered with the National Insurance Board (NIB), a mandatory national insurance scheme for all working people. In 2004 they contributed over $3.5 million to the NIB coffers, while claiming only 1.8 percent of total benefits. Haitian nationals who are summarily repatriated are often forced to leave their national insurance contributions behind.
Also lumped into the category of so-called illegals are also documented migrants with a legal right to live and/or work in the Bahamas: spouses, permanent residents, temporary workers. The Haitian people within this group and the wider Caribbean immigrant population make up a core fabric of Bahamian society. We have more Caribbean people per capita working in the Bahamas than any other Caribbean country, according to the government’s own accounts. So our part-time xenophobia only speaks to an apparent national schizophrenia, because the Bahamas is actually a very multicultural nation; Caribbean people are literally part of our DNA makeup. They are part of our ancestry, our politics, culture, history, and spirituality.
Affirming Immigrant Rights
I could go on and on. For now, what needs to be said is that regardless of the arguments for or against the validity of the concerns about the so-called Haitian Problem, none of it overrides the fact that immigrants have rights. Criminals, illegals, undocumented migrants, unwelcomed guest or not, immigrants have rights. In the Bahamas, that cannot be said loud enough or often enough.
The Bahamian constitution does not guarantee rights only for Bahamian citizens; it enshrines rights for anyone who falls within its legal jurisdiction. And even beyond the technicality of the legal rights that are codified by the Bahamian constitution and in legislation, there are intrinsic rights that we as a community of human beings subscribe to. So the view of the so-called Haitian Problem should be irrelevant to the affirmation, promotion and expansion of immigrant rights in the Bahamas.
Inherited Colonial Order
Now let us back track a bit, because the dominant understanding of the so-called Haitian Problem exists not simply because we have absorbed the global perspective of Haiti, the country Western media never ceases to decree, is the poorest country in the Caribbean and the western region. The Bahamas has its own domestic tradition of seeding subversive views of Haiti. In the pre-independent Bahamas, from as early as the 1700s, the colonial government took deliberate action to domesticate a colonial view of Haiti. It has lingered ever since.
Former attorney general Sean McWeeney, who currently chairs the government’s Constitutional Commission, did extensive research on the Bahamian reaction to revolutionary upheaval in Haiti in the early nineteenth century.
He documents how the fleeing plantocracy arrived in the Bahamas from Haiti with apocalyptic stories of revolution. In a coincidence of history, this was the same period when white Loyalists from North America arrived with their enslaved Africans. There was an unprecedented and dramatic shift in the racial composition of the Bahamas, with non-whites significantly outnumbering whites, which added to the maddening fear of a black revolution in the Bahamas.
With the terror of Toussaint L’ouverture firmly planted in the consciousness of the colonial government, swift action was taken to levy a tax on Haitian slaves and outlaw any further import of slaves from Haiti; implement a policy of mandatory self-deportation for all free blacks from Haiti, curfews and other restrictions on the freedom of movement of blacks.
There was a deliberate intensification of racial control by the colonial government to suppress the revolutionary sentiment flowing in from Haiti. This is where the narrative was born about Haitians taking over; about Haitians being violent; about Haitians being the devil of our existence. And ever since, the Bahamian government has continued to discriminately enforce a cynical immigration policy based on this fiction, all for political gain.
But the eyes of the people and the eyes of the world bare down on us more and more today, so there is no more escaping the way our cultural attitudes and actions raise serious concerns about the abuse of human rights and the violation of constitutional rights. Attorney Fred Smith, QC, president of the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA), comprehensively detailed these concerns in a recently published open letter.
Strengthening Communication Rights
As an example of the impact of our cultural attitudes, a practicing criminal defense attorney shared a view on the conduct of juries in criminal cases that deal with immigrants. “A Bahamian jury will never believe the word of a Haitian or Jamaican immigrant over an immigration officer,” said the defense attorney, speaking theoretically about the underlying distrust Bahamians have of immigrant voices. Trust is one of the key pillars of effective communication. This is one way our cultural attitudes undermine any effort to strengthen communication rights for migrants.
In the Bahamas, Haitian is used interchangeably with illegal Haitian or simply illegal immigrant; all of these labels are epithets, and all immigrants, regardless of their nationality or status are subject to being degraded to this underclass position, in which they are entitled to no rights.
Migrants of African descent often report feeling like uninvited guests in the country with no entitlement to speak, regardless of their status, whether documented or undocumented or having crossed the border legally or illegally. Out of fear of being stigmatized and discriminated, many go to extreme lengths to symbolically self-mutilate by cutting out their own tongues.
The fear is not misplaced. Stories abound of migrants experiencing excessively harsh treatment at the hands of police, immigration officers and defence force officers for not quietly acquiescing to the infringement of their rights.
As an example, a few months ago a group of women were arrested on suspicion of prostitution during a police raid. None of the women were charged with a crime, some of them had legal status in the country, but nonetheless they were all repatriated. One of the women, however, was allegedly detained for an extra night at the infamous Carmichael Road Detention Centre just because she protested her arrest and was mouthy with authorities. When all of her other counterparts were repatriated the day after the incident, she was allegedly held for an additional night as punishment.
As far as immigrants are concerned, there is a penalty for speaking in the Bahamas: it varies from ridicule, dismissal, denial of permission, stonewalling in the bureaucracy, physical abuse, arrest, discrimination, or deportation. And when immigrants speak, they usually expect their voices to be invalidated by some form of public shaming.
After a 9-month pregnant woman complained about being unlawfully detained and having to give birth on the floor of the detention centre in unsanitary conditions, immigration officials accused her of inducing her own labour to make a political statement. The Director of Immigration issued a statement on the matter, not to apologise for the unfortunate situation or to explain why a 9-month pregnant woman was held at the detention centre in the first place. He sought to clarify that the pregnant woman was taken to the hospital and given an injection to delay her labour. While awaiting deportation, he accused the pregnant woman of inducing her own labour to embarrass the government and conspiring with other detainees to refuse help from immigration officers.
When others speak affirmatively about or on behalf of migrants, they face their own kind of stigmatization and discrimination. One of the only voices on local radio that consistently gives voice to divergent views on the so-called Haitian problem is “The Kreyol Connection”, a nightly programme hosted by a Bahamian of Haitian ancestry Louby Georges. There are repeated calls for the cancellation of his show, as it supposedly spreads Haitian propaganda. Louby constantly receives attacks questioning his allegiance.
After writing “The Myth of Identity: Our Dirty Little Secret”, a piece on the historical connections between the Haitian and Bahamian people, I received hate mail at the newspaper where I worked. I was branded a Haitian sympathizer and called a traitor. After breaking a news story about a police investigation into the alleged rape of a former detainee by a senior immigration officer, a known political operative openly called for the government to cancel its contracts with a company for which I am a board member and a majority shareholder. My mixed heritage was evoked as a sign of my lack of objectivity. No doubt, my presentation here today, will further the perception.
The Grand Bahama Human Rights Association GBHRA has been one of the most vocal activist groups criticizing the government for its immigration policy over the decades. Its president is representing several immigrants who are filing suit against the government. Critics have sought to undermine Mr Smith’s advocacy with claims that he is politically motivated and point to his early upbringing in Haiti as a sign of false allegiance to the Bahamas and mixed loyalties. His activism has been labeled as “traitorous attacks” on the country and government, not just by fringe voices but also by respected thought leaders. And during the most recent Junkanoo parade, the Bahamas’ signature cultural festival, an anonymous group paraded through the streets with hats similar to those worn by Ku Klux Klan members with placards that read: Mr Smith a “Haitian infidel“. “Is Fred Smith a Bahamian or an illegal Haitian?” It was an outrageous and highly offensive demonstration.
If I did not know better, I would say, the Bahamas is simply a nation unhinged by its disdain of Haitians and contempt for immigrants. But I do know better. The situation we see reflected by the so-called Haitian problem is indicative of an identity crisis in the Bahamas.
While we appear as xenophobes, we are at the same time a nation that constructs its economic identity around immigrants: wealthy immigrant investors, North American transients and low-wage migrant workers. We openly embrace the former two groups and we vehemently deny the latter.
In the privacy our homes and businesses, Bahamians are happy to employ Haitians to work low wage jobs because they value the work ethic and skill of the Haitian people, but in public we use rhetoric of hate to keep up a façade of discontent.
We resent Haitian Flag Day, but we celebrate American Independence Day. We hate the Haitian cultural influence but we embrace the imperialism of American culture.
For a price of $500,000, we sell belonger status to wealthy second home owners, who can buy accelerated consideration for permanent residency, but Bahamian born children of Haitian parentage have to wait and jump through inordinate hoops for only the hope that their citizenship may be conferred. Unpacking this duplicity must form part of our honest communication.
Haitians have many problems in the Bahamas, but the Bahamas doesn’t have a Haitian problem. We have an identity problem, and in deflecting our discomfort over living duplicitously we make Haitians the grand scapegoat.
For too long the Bahamas has hidden behind the veneer of its paradise island propaganda, while failing to address the fact that it is only better in the Bahamas for certain people. We have fallen into many problematic delusions, one of which is our perception and treatment of illegal immigration or the so-called Haitian Problem. The narrative tells us that Haitians do not belong, that they are the enemy, but this is a fiction that is keeping us blind to the duplicity in our way of being.
Our actions reveal a people with an incestuous love of nation, acting out a type of patriotism that only creates a nation in which no one truly belongs; where we live in constant search for a basis to separate a group of Us from a group of Them; where we create an ever shrinking body of belongers. It is a dehumanizing way of being.
Locked in this binary Us versus Them point of view we are finding it extremely difficult to communicate with one another. Even worse, we have created a new form of indentured servitude in the Bahamas, in which the unspoken contract is, Haitians have a place but only if they know their role; Haitians can stay, but only if they relinquish their rights; Haitians can belong but only as our objects.
The Big Lie
For as long as I can remember we have been telling this big lie to ourselves and to the world, believing perhaps that if we keep repeating the lie somehow it will become true. Just last year, our Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration was at the United Nations General Assembly continuing our tradition of tall tales about our so-called Haitian Problem.
In his October address Minister Fred Mitchell said: “No Bahamian doubts that the control of illegal immigration is central to our survivability as a country, central to our national identity and central to our national security.”
Although the weight of the office and the familiarity of the message makes it sound true, the fiction does not stand up to the facts.
It must be said, while Minister Mitchell is the current symbol of the government’s immigration policy, the policy has remained virtually unchanged in its spirit since pre-independence. Chairman of the School of Social Sciences at the College of the Bahamas, Stephen Aranah, recently wrote an editorial in which he coined the phrase: “the so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy”.
In other words, it is not personal and it is not political. Playing to the part-time xenophobia of the population with round them up and ship them out tactics has always been the go to political tactic. It has always been an easier option to developing and enforcing an immigration policy that actually aids in national development.
With public approval ratings of the “so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy” at 85 per cent and unanimous support from all mainstream political parties, there is no incentive to do differently.
This is why we must tackle the cultural attitudes, to free ourselves of the irrational constraints that prevent us from acting more wisely and responsibly to protect our borders and to strategically promote controlled migration. Unless we simply get a sick sense of satisfaction out of genocidal like containment practices, there is a high level of futility in our rabid efforts.
The problems of true concern are smuggling and immigration fraud, and they do not warrant the hypersensitivity and hysteria we see over the so-called Haitian problem. They do not justify the sacrifice of human dignity, the abuse of human rights or the trampling of constitutional rights that we are seeing.
The Identity Crisis
What does it all boil down to? When Bahamians look in the mirror they don’t like what they see, because what they see is an archipelagic nation joined at the hip to a country of impoverished millions they wish not to be associated with. And for that, the Haitian presence reveals in Bahamians a deeply rooted self-hate.
It may be a curse of geography for some, but like it or not, the Bahamas is inextricably linked to Haiti at multiple levels of its being: From Haiti’s historic significance to all African peoples, to the genealogical connections between Haitians and Bahamians, the social and political contributions of Haitians to the development of the Bahamas, not to mention the supply of Haitian labour and its resultant positive economic impact.
There is no Bahamian identity outside of its associated Haitian-ness, but like a pubescent girl trying to come to terms with the onset of acne we loathe that part of our being. That we choose to problematize our relationship with the Haitian people is a choice we make. We choose to believe our survival depends on a rabid crusade to rid ourselves of illegals, when the truth tells us our energies are better spent elsewhere.
The only threat so called illegal immigrants pose to our national identity is that they invoke a part of our being we choose to hate, a part of our being that makes us doubt our national and cultural sovereignty. But we could just as easily choose a new narrative to speak to the Haitian presence in the Bahamas, one that affirms our cultural affinity, promotes integration and assimilation and dignifies the Haitian experience as a symbol of our national and cultural sovereignty.
Integration and Survival
A small group of players in civil society have been in the vanguard of strategies to strengthen immigrant rights while the government has nurtured a culture of contempt through its passive leadership. Moving forward, civil society and the government must work hand in hand to bring about the transformation that is needed within the wider society.
This UN Decade for People of African Descent provides the right vehicle to help us come to terms with the Bahamian-Haitian nexus. Here are a few things what ifs I would like to propose in the interested of moving forward:
- What if we could come to terms with the so-called Haitian Problem and see that our projection of contempt is but a reflection of our own identity crisis; that our national schizophrenia, our duplicity are symptoms of a cultural disorder that we must overcome?
- What if we affirmed that immigrants have rights; that all human beings have rights; that immigrants are stakeholders in the society and their voices matter; that immigrant rights are to be fostered, protected and respected?
- What if we took deliberate steps to cultivate a spirit of empathy in our society and respect for human rights regardless of immigration status; if we stopped a moment to listen to what immigrants have to say?
- What if we welcomed the community of Bahamians with Haitian ancestry who deserve and have a right to call the Bahamas their home; if we could acknowledge, legitimize and integrate them into the society without delay?
- What if we systematically upended the antagonistic posture that state institutions have towards immigrants, and stamped out the extortion rackets and other forms of abuse and corruption at the hands of government agents?
- What if we acknowledged there is a market in the Bahamas for Haitian labour and decided it is nothing to feel threatened by; if we declared Haitians are not our objects or indentured servants, but members of the human family and valuable contributors to the development of the Bahamas.
- What if we rejected the feeling of being overrun by immigrants in the Bahamas and remember that our country is actually under-populated and badly in need of controlled migration policy? We have over 80 per cent of our population living on only 2 per cent of our land mass. We have an insufficiently trained workforce with few economies of scale.
- What if we could accept, affirm and celebrate that the Bahamas has been, still is and will always be inextricably linked to Haiti; that no matter the scale of the challenges we face with smuggling, immigration fraud and the likes, these problems pale in comparison to the depth of our positive connections to the Haitian people.
- What if we abandoned the oppressive Us versus Them concept of self that we inherited from the dualistic European view of the world. It is keeping us disconnected from our humanity, and from the rich inheritance of freedom we share thanks to the Haitian people.
- What if we could embrace, teach and help propagate around the world an African Ubuntu consciousness of humanity toward others, the ideology of walking in another man’s shoes as a means of building an inclusive society in which there is a space for everyone to belong.
What if we could do these things? What if we could reframe the problem? Would we not live in a better society a more just society, a more cohesive society than we do now? Would we not be better off as a nation? Haitians have many problems in the Bahamas, but the Bahamas doesn’t have a Haitian problem.
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