By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Bahamas government must work to address discriminatory practices towards persons of Haitian descent who apply for regularisation, an official from the Haitian Embassy said yesterday.
Wallenson Nobert, first secretary of Legal Affairs at the Haitian Embassy, charged that the “real problem” faced by the Haitian Bahamian community in the Bahamas stems from the absence of a clear legal framework to process migrants.
In response to a panel discussion hosted by the College of the Bahamas on the complex issue of statelessness within the Bahamian context, Mr Nobert challenged that the use of the term “stateless” to describe unregularised persons of Haitian descent was “inappropriate” given Haiti’s citizenship laws.
However, Mr Nobert said there was an inherent “hypocrisy” in the Bahamas’ handling of citizenship that allowed for a peculiar stratification of rights, adding “either you’re a part of a country, or you’re not”.
Led by Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett, associate professor in the School of English Studies, presenters focused on the effectiveness of citizenship and related immigration policy, and its application in respect to Haitian migrants and persons of Haitian descent living in the Bahamas.
The panel discussion is the second of its kind for the college, which hosted the first panel on the issue in 2012.
COB student Fiona Joseph argued that the regularisation process has deferred the dreams of many persons of Haitian descent born in the Bahamas, who are forced to wait until they are 18 to begin a lengthy application process.
Ms Joseph gave a personal account of her regularisation process as an individual born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents in her presentation entitled, Stateless and (Ba)Haitian in The Bahamas.
She admitted that she did not apply for Haitian citizenship because it would have further complicated her bid for Bahamian citizenship by forcing her to seek naturalisation instead.
Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell confirmed to The Tribune that the government does not issue certificates of identity.
He said: “I do not believe that there is a large group of stateless people. What we have is people born to foreign parents who don’t want to get the passport of their parents. We have stopped issuing certificates of identity.”
In his presentation entitled “Statelessness: Real or Imagined?” Dr Bethell-Bennett charged that while states argue over whether or not statelessness exists, and what type, the reality remains that a large group of people in the Bahamas are trapped in a “grey zone”, disfranchised and unable to access basic rights attached to citizenship.
The large population of unregularised persons represents a critical national security issue, according to Dr Ian Strachan, COB’s vice president of Advancement, who stated that progress on the issue has been stalled because of citizenship’s value as a political bargaining chip.
In his presentation, “Ugly Politics: Haitians and Power in the Bahamas”, Dr Strachan argued that immigration policy and procedures have been used for political advancement over the last 30 years, perpetuating negative stereotypes towards persons of Haitian descent while exploiting the migrant community during the election period.
Presenter Stephen Aranha, assistant professor in the School of Social Sciences, provided a critical review of citizenship as defined by the Bahamas constitution, and the recommendations given by the 2012 Constitutional Commission.
Although Haitians represent the largest migrant community, Mr Aranha argued that Immigration processes in the Bahamas were arbitrary, and open to legal uncertainty for all migrants.
Haiti’s constitution affords individuals born of a “native born” Haitian parent automatic entitlement to citizenship, if they choose to accept it, according to Mr Nobert, who encouraged individuals of Haitian lineage to seek assistance from the embassy regardless of their status.
However, presenters argued that the law is not clear on whether or not this right is passed on to third generation descendants whose parents were not born in Haiti, or have no legal documentation.
Presenters called for the government to either lower the age requirement for persons to begin applications for citizenship, or do an overhaul of the requirements to bring them in line with migration realities.
Mr Nobert’s comments echo concerns raised by the United Nations Human Rights Council, most recently the need for strengthened reporting mechanisms and statistical research on migrant communities in the Bahamas.