By Rupert Missick Jr
ACCORDING to exploratory research on trafficking in persons in the Bahamas conducted by the International Organization for Migration, there are 20,000 to 50,000 undocumented Haitians living in the Bahamas while the number of registered Haitian migrant workers is only 5,000.
It is estimated that more than 13,000 dependent family members are supported by these registered migrant Haitian workers.
But it is the statistics quoted by the IOM’s report with regard to the children of these migrants that seems to bring a human face to one of the most pertinent issues discussed by the recent Constitutional Commission report with regard to the right to Bahamian citizenship.
The IOM says that the majority of undocumented persons entering the Bahamas are Haitian children up to the age of 14, who apparently travel with parents. It is the status of these children and those born in the country to Haitian migrants who enter the country illegally that the Commission addressed its attention when it examined the issue of statelessness in the Bahamas.
It highlights a fact, brought to its attention by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which explained that several provisions of the Constitution might have the effect of creating a class of persons who are stateless.
These parts of the Bahamian Constitution, according to the UNHCR, are not only contrary to various international agreements it has acquiesced to but also problematic in light of The Bahamas’ obligations pursuant to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Commission admitted that Article 7 of the Constitution effectively reduces many persons to a “situation of effective statelessness, as the persons who are primarily affected are either unwilling or unable to avail themselves of the other nationality to which they are entitled. Needless to say, the majority of persons who fall into this category are children born in The Bahamas to Haitian parents.”
Many persons have argued that these children are not stateless and are in fact entitled to Haitian citizenship. However, the Commission points out that the realities of the situation are not as simple as that.
The Haitian Constitution allows a person to obtain citizenship if they have at least one parent who was born in Haiti and who has never renounced their citizenship. So, on the surface, persons born in The Bahamas to a native-born Haitian parent who has not renounced Haitian citizenship would become a Haitian national at birth.
However, the claim to Haitian citizenship by descent is limited to the first generation if their parents fall short of these criteria.
The commission points out that even where persons falling into this category are entitled to Haitian citizenship, most choose not to acquire Haitian passports, as in any event they would be required to renounce that citizenship at 18 to acquire Bahamian citizenship. The Haitian Constitution forbids dual Haitian and foreign nationality.
However, the commission believes that the 18-year period for persons born in the Bahamas to non-Bahamian parents to become eligible for citizenship is too long.
While the requirement was intended to coincide with the age of majority, when the claimant would be capable of choosing which nationality they wish to take, the commission said that it is assumed that during the interval, the person would be able to hold the nationality of some other country.
This, the commission said, was never the intention of framers of the Bahamas Constitution that persons in those circumstances would be rendered stateless.
The Commission acknowledged the enormous “psychological, socio-economic and other ill-effects that result from leaving large groups of persons in limbo in relation to their aspirations for Bahamian citizenship.”
“Not only are the affected individuals badly damaged and marginalized, the entire society is put at risk and its future compromised by having within its borders a substantial body of persons who, although having no knowledge or experience of any other society, are made to feel that they are intruders without any claim, moral or legal, for inclusion. Such feelings of alienation and rejection are bound to translate into anti-social behaviour among many members of what is, in effect, a very large underclass in our society,” the commission said.
It was frequently suggested to the Commission that persons born in the Bahamas to non-Bahamian parents should be given a more formal status, such as permanent residence, until they reach the age of majority and are able to apply to be registered as citizens.
“The difficulty with this is that permanent residence (with limited exceptions) is only available to persons who are of the age of majority, which is also when the entitlement to citizenship arises under Article 8,” the Commission said.