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NOT THEIR BROTHER'S KEEPERS

 

By Larry Smith

Monday, February 22, 2010

In the weeks since the catastrophic earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 men women and children in Haiti, there has been an endless stream of consciousness from Bahamians on both sides of the migration issue.

First we had what I considered to be some extraordinary reactions to the prime minister's remarks immediately after the January 12 event. In a series of Facebook exchanges, several intellectual critics condemned Ingraham for being insensitive and justifying anti-Haitian sentiments by discouraging Bahamians from helping in the wake of the disaster. These were the remarks in question (as reported by the Guardian):

"The government has established a common account at all the country's commercial banks, into which donations to the relief effort in Haiti can be made. We will cause that money to be sent either to the Haitian government and/or to international organizations that are able to provide assistance to Haiti at this time and the government will make a significant financial contribution. It is not appropriate for us to be collecting goods to send to Haiti because there is no means by which we can get there.”

Then there was an equally hostile reaction to the perfectly sensible policy announced at the same time that the government would release Haitians from the Detention Centre and suspend apprehension and repatriation efforts, while seeking to prevent new illegal immigration. This generated howls of vitriolic protest and confused comments from Bahamians upset about the supposed creolisation of the country. In response, the PM had this to say:

"The Haitian homeland has been devastated by the worst catastrophe in 200 years, with governmental agencies rendered impotent. Burdening a collapsed country with destitute deportees would be a true crime. I can’t imagine hypocrites going to church on Sunday morning and then saying on the radio and on the newspapers and in their hearts, that we ought to detain and keep these people and send them back to Haiti."

Up next was a call by College of the Bahamas lecturer Nicolette Bethel for a more informed policy on Haitian migrants: "What about an organized agricultural project," she asked, "where those who enter illegally must reside and work under supervision--Government housing (not illegal and unsafe shanty towns) and some payment should be part of the deal--in exchange for labour. Couldn't there be a win-win situation?"

Although variations on this theme have been proposed over the years, it  nevertheless produced the standard outraged Bahamian responses: "We have THOUSANDS of ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS in The Bahamas already who are looking for a fresh start in life," argued Dennis Dames in a letter to the editor, "and it's a huge burden on our social services. How many MILLIONS of NEW ILLEGALS do you think that we could accommodate?"

Frankly, the level of ignorance, fear and hate-mongering surrounding the Haitian migration to the Bahamas is astounding - especially when one considers the fact that Africans living in Haiti achieved the first successful slave revolt in history against one of the world's most advanced nations. I would have thought that this should mean something to most Bahamians, but it doesn't. So much for all the talk about the African diaspora.

This antagonistic Bahamian attitude towards Haitians is largely due to our religious, political and educational leaders (at least those who know better) - who have consistently recoiled from discussing the social issues or promoting integration in order to avoid stirring the political pot.

If we are to develop an informed policy we need information - which is extraordinarily difficult to come by in the Bahamas. In fact, there has been scant research on this subject over the past 30 years - only two major studies, a couple of substantial analyses, and a handful of limited government surveys. But during the Christie administration an attempt was made to address this deficiency.

In 2004 the International Office of Migration was asked to undertake an assessment of the Haitian community in the Bahamas, in conjunction with researchers at the College of the Bahamas. The resulting 98-page report collated all the available data, and creole-speaking interviewers surveyed 500 Haitians on four islands, with the support of the Haitian Embassy. But the findings were never officially published (although the report is available online), and the information in the report is never discussed.

What this research shows is that the Haitian problem is not quite as insurmountable as many of us believe. For example, published estimates of the size of the Haitian population range from 80,000 up to 400,000 (more than the entire Bahamian population of about 340,000). Such wild estimates have been made at various times by politicians, journalists and pundits - among others - all with a view to proving that we are being overwhelmed by foreigners.

Counting illegal residents is a notoriously unreliable exercise, but the IOM report used a number of methods to arrive at an estimate of 30 to 60,000, of which many are just passing through to a third country (like the US) or returning home to Haiti. And many more are here legally in one form or another. And it is often overlooked that there are an estimated 70,000 undocumented Bahamians living in the United States, in addition to some 12,000 living there legally.

The claim that Haitians are hogging up free public services also bears a closer look. Official data indicate that about 8.8 per cent of all school children are 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 less than 12 per cent of live births were to Haitian nationals in 2003.

On the other side of the coin, over 12,000 registered Haitians contributed more than $3.5 million to National Insurance in 2004, but they received only 1.8 per cent of total benefits - far less than might be expected from the estimated size of the population. And like the rest of us, Haitians (whether legal or not) pay taxes on whatever they buy in our stores.

Over 30 years ago, Bahamian social scientist Dawn Marshall undertook the first study of the Haitian migration to the Bahamas. She noted at the time that: "It cannot be in the best interest of either the Bahamian government or the Bahamian nation to allow a large proportion of its population to live and develop in isolation.

And in its 2005 report, the IOM said much the same thing: "Unless the Haitian community becomes more fully integrated into Bahamian society, an important minority of the Bahamian-born population will grow up as foreigners within the only society they know."

Dawn Marshall says the official policy of both parties boils down to "apprehend and deport with no consideration of the needs of the economy. Small island developing states like the Bahamas usually have to import labour if they want to grow. We need a policy on how we are going to manage that importation."

And that is essentially the crux of the matter. Plainly we need the labour. That's why the Haitians are here - because there is a market for them, and they can earn more than they can at home. In fact, there would be no Bahamian agriculture at all if it were not for Haitians. We are willing to employ them illegally and pay them low wages because they are outside the protection of the law. It follows, therefore, that in order to control the migration we have to control both supply and demand, which means regulating employers as well as deporting illegals. But we don't do that.

Meanwhile, the government's unstated policy on this issue seems to boil down to co-existence rather than integration. And we have to ask whether the government (PLP or FNM) has made a conscious, informed decision on this. Well, good luck in getting that answer from anyone in a position to know.

Should we invite hundreds of thousands of Haitians in to set up peasant plantations and denude our scattered islands? Or should we round up every man, woman and child of Haitian descent and put them in concentration camps until we can deport them?

These are apparently the choices we face if we take our leaders at face value. There may be better solutions, but we will never arrive at them without a rational public debate based on accurate information. in the meantime, we will continue to repeat rubbish and hurl racial epithets.

Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.

 

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