By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
AFTER being shelved for a decade, the government is working to resurrect an agreement between Haiti and the Bahamas on work exchange and immigration procedures.
Responding to concerns raised in a preliminary UN report on human trafficking, Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell revealed that the agreement tackling the challenges of illegal migration was signed by both countries, but never ratified by the Haitian government after the removal of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
At a press conference yesterday, Mr Mitchell downplayed fears expressed by UN Special Rapporteur Joy Ngozi Ezeilo over the high risk of trafficking victims being criminalised due to rapid processing and repatriation of illegal migrants, and the reported absence of a national action plan to combat the issue.
At last count, 323 migrants were being held at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre, according to Mr Mitchell, who explained that large numbers were unsustainable for extended periods of time. Mr Mitchell said 221 of the detainees were Haitians.
Restating the government’s strong commitment to the global fight against trafficking, Mr Mitchell said the government had to deal with a “delicate balancing act” to ensure adherence to international requirements within the realm of available resources.
“When you examine the profile of the people who are trafficked normally, you’re really talking about women and children mainly,” Mr Mitchell said. “The profile of the people who come here who are smuggled into the country are mainly male, young males, who appear to be looking for work.
“At the start there is an attempt to establish whether or not there is coercion, whether or not there is political asylum as a claim.
“One of the reasons,” said Mr Mitchell, “we have to do it as quickly as we do is resources, we have a detention centre that simply cannot sustain large numbers of people over a long period of time.
“It’s just unsustainable, you have to have a quick turnaround procedure, and you have to balance the requirements of (trafficking in persons), the requirements of refugee status, against the humane interests of all of the people involved.
“You don’t always get it right, but the point is for all of our international partners to know that the Bahamas government has a commitment to fighting this issue.”
At the end of the first visit by an independent expert from the UN Human Rights Council to the country, Ms Ezeilo issued preliminary recommendations to the government on the issue of human trafficking in the country.
Pointing to the high level of migration to the Bahamas, Ms Ezeilo criticised the government for not having statistical data about the scale of trafficking in the country, and a uniform policy on the identification of victims.
Her findings echoed concerns raised in a US State Department report earlier this year.
Mr Mitchell declined to elaborate on existing protocols on screening, stating that it was within the purview of the Ministry of National Security.
Pointing to the high demand for cheap domestic labour, and reports of labour exploitation of migrants, Ms Ezeilo also urged the government to implement policies to create safe and legal migrant opportunities through bilateral cooperation with countries in the region.
Yesterday, Mr Mitchell said the government has received assurances from Haitian president Michel Martelly that any available resources will be invested to stem the flow of illegal migrants from his country.
“In the Aristide administration in Haiti,” said Mr Mitchell, “we settled an agreement on all of these measures in terms of recruitment of workers, how the immigration procedures ought to be handled, intelligence officers in the north of Haiti. The problem is Mr Aristide was overthrown, the agreement was never ratified by the Haitian parliament.
“It’s signed by the two parties, but it’s still outstanding, the last administration did nothing, we’re trying to get it started again,” he said.
“One of the things we’ve asked is for publicity in the north of Haiti, to tell people do not make this very dangerous journey and the fact is we’re trying by this procedure that we’re following to make sure that people know if you get caught you’re going back home, and you’re going back home as quickly as possible.”
Mr Mitchell also underscored additional initiatives to dissuade employers for hiring illegal migrants, which include: not issuing work permits for persons with no proof of legal entry to the Bahamas; immigration checks, and further consideration to stiffen penalties for employers who hire illegal workers.
Mr Aristide was ousted during his second term in a 2004 coup d’état, which he accused the United States of orchestrating. He returned to the country in 2011 after seven years of exile in the Central African Republic.
Mr Aristide was Haiti’s first democratically elected president, however, his first term was suspended from 1991-1994 due to a coup by the Haitian military.