By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE year ended on a confusing and sombre note for immigration issues in the Bahamas.
For those with a penchant for a silver lining, the removal of travel restrictions between China and the Bahamas was presented as an ironclad testament of diplomatic trust.
Lingering still however are unresolved migration issues that continue to engender systemic challenges for education, health and social services, and to a larger extent national identity.
This year’s challenges were met with assurances from the government that the issue was a top priority, and simultaneous acknowledgement that available resources are at capacity.
Far removed from the days of nomadic travel, modern human migration is a multifaceted and contentious issue that has muddied concepts of nationalism, state responsibility, and human rights across the world.
While major international human rights bodies have decried the overt criminalisation of irregular migration, and have increased pressure for legislated humane immigration processes, many countries continue to grapple with the task of balancing resources without compromising national commitments.
According to statistics compiled by the International Organisation for Migration, this country has a net migration rate of 1.8 migrants per 1,000 citizens, with immigrants accounting for 16.3 per cent of the population – 49 per cent of whom are women.
Based on exploratory research, the IOM estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 undocumented Haitians are living in the Bahamas, a stark contrast to the 5,000 registered Haitian migrant workers in the country, supporting 13,000 dependent family members.
The Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court ruling TC 168-13 presents a grim look at the manifestations of migration challenges evident in the Bahamas.
Although talks are set to begin early this year between Haitian president Michel Martelly and Dominican president Danilo Medina over border security, migration and the contentious TC 168-13, the ruling has retroactively stripped citizenship from Haitians.
CARICOM, the Venezuelan government and several human rights organisations have condemned the ruling for the mass denationalisation it would engender for more than 200,000 Dominicans of foreign origin, some 80 per cent of Haitian descent.
The ruling has been building for years amidst claims of discrimination and labour exploitation against Dominicans of Haitian descent, who have reportedly faced increased difficulty in obtaining the country’s state ID.
Decried as a human rights crisis in the making and likened to apartheid, the ruling has intensified tensions between the neighbouring countries that share the island.
Last month, CARICOM suspended the Dominican Republic’s application to join the regional body, calling on the country’s leaders to urgently “take immediate, credible steps” to prevent looming crisis.
Dominican authorities deported 347 Haitians voluntarily last month, according to Caribbean News Now, many of whom had taken refuge in the police precinct in Neyba, after being terrorised, attacked or threatened with death and chased by angry Dominicans.
According to the Miami Herald, the exodus comes amid assurances from the Dominican President Medina that affected persons would not be deported.
During one of weekly protests in New York over the ruling, Estela Vazquez, a Dominican immigrant told VoicesofNewYork.org, “This decision has been used to incite a backward, prehistoric nationalism.”
The Bahamas government is now considering introducing a National Identification Card as well as charging persons who knowingly hire illegal immigrants in an effort to deal with the country’s long-standing illegal migration problem.
Two months prior, Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell said persons calling for the card “must also understand there are civil liberty implications” that can arise as a result.
He explained that the card could include being stopped on the street at any time and asked by authorities to show proof of legal residency.
While the China Bahamas visa agreement has been heralded as a progressive move toward strengthening the tourism industry, the development comes as international bodies increase pressure for the government to consummate conventions with legislative and operational policy.
Responding to concerns raised in a preliminary UN report on human trafficking, Mr Mitchell revealed that the government is working to resurrect an agreement between Haiti and the Bahamas on work exchange and immigration procedures.
After being shelved for a decade, 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.
Mr Mitchell down-played fears expressed by UN Special Rapporteur Joy Ngozi Ezeilo over the high risk of trafficking victims being treated as criminals due to rapid processing and repatriation exercises, and the reported absence of a national action plan to combat the 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.
Nicolette Bethel, head of the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Social Work at the College of the Bahamas, expressed disappointment that the academic community was not invited to contribute during the observer visit.
Dr Bethel pointed out that the most comprehensive study to date on the status of the Haitian migrant community in the Bahamas was conducted by the college in collaboration with International Organisation for Migration.
Ms Ezeilo is expected to present her final observations and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014.
Three-hundred and twenty-three migrants were being held at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre last month, 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.
Mr Mitchell said Ms Ezeilo’s preliminary report on the findings of her three-day visit to the Bahamas were out of context.
Ms Ezeilo held high-level meetings with government officials in New Providence and Grand Bahama, including the government’s task force and national committee. Ms Ezeilo also visited migrant detention centres.
Several lecturers at the College of the Bahamas reiterated Dr Bethel’s disappointment that the academic community was not invited to contribute.
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.
While Mr Mitchell declined to elaborate on existing protocols on screening, stating that it was within the purview of the Ministry of National Security, he 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.
In a Tribune242 poll this month, 103 readers supported random ID checks as a method to tackle illegal immigration.
Random immigration checks last months saw 105 people arrested, 22 released, $37,000 collected in outstanding fees and 83 people committed to the detention centre.
In one operation, 75 men and eight women were detained.
There were six Venezuelans; nine Ecuadorian men, two Peruvian women; six Jamaican men and two Jamaican women, 54 Haitian men and two Haitian women.
Mr Mitchell pointed to contrast between the profile of smuggled persons, young men looking for work, and the traditional profile of trafficked persons, women and children.
Mr Mitchell said: “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.”
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 co-operation with countries in the region.
The mutual agreement to permit visa-free travel between China and the Bahamas was hailed as a “tremendous” step towards reducing the country’s dependency on North American markets this month.
Expected to come into effect mid-2014, the agreement will continue indefinitely to allow citizens unrestricted travel without a visa for up to thirty days.
At the signing, Mr Mitchell said he remained committed to creating a similar agreement with the United States of America. He underscored the minute Bahamian population in comparison to the US.
Mr Mitchell said: “The foreign policy of the Bahamas, from this minister, is to make it possible for seamless experience across borders for Bahamians around the world, and so getting a visa-free access to China is a huge improvement in that and adds to what we’ve already done.”
China has the world’s largest population with some 1.3 billion people.