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By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
FORMER Minister of Education Desmond Bannister yesterday said the recently announced immigration requirements for the upcoming school year were lawful, but “morally reprehensible”.
Mr Bannister said the government’s plans to require all non-Bahamian students to have a student permit for the fall semester would render the same impact as the poll tax that disfranchised minority voters in the United States during the late 19th century.
He condemned the move as contrary to the moral obligation of the government to provide every possible opportunity for children to obtain an education free of charge, and encourage a literate society.
“In the past, successive governments have appreciated that notwithstanding the status of a child in a country,” he said, “we have a moral obligation to provide every possible opportunity for children to obtain an education free of charge.”
“What the government is doing is keeping education free while creating obstacles for those whose parents may not be here legally, or those who cannot afford the fees charged by (the Department of) Immigration.”
“They are in effect creating a society of the ‘haves and the have nots’ in similar fashion as when certain states in the US imposed poll taxes on blacks to prevent them from exercising their newly found right to vote.
“So all children will have the right to a free education, but like those black Americans that right would be illusory since they will not be able to register in order to obtain that benefit.”
Last week, Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell revealed the government’s plans to require all non-Bahamian students, even those born here to immigrant parents, to have a student permit for the fall semester or a passport with a residency stamp. The announcement did not specify how the policy would be enforced, and follows the introduction of a wider immigration policy that, among other things, requires every non-Bahamian living in the country to have a passport of their nationality with proof of their status to live and work in the Bahamas.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration has defended the move, and this week, it was revealed that immigration and education officials will meet soon to facilitate the new requirement for children.
Calls placed to Director of Education Lionel Sands were not returned up to press time.
Mr Bannister said of the changes: “By doing so, we will create an illiterate servant class with little or no education; and a privileged, educated class.
“I realize that illegal immigration and all of its attendant ills create a strain on our society, but we ought not permit incursions into the universal availability of education of the most vulnerable members of society or we will pay a significant price as a people.”
The move has come under scrutiny from political observers and local human rights activists over whether it violates international law set by the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The human rights treaty mandates that all children are free from discrimination and specifies that primary education should be free.
Mr Bannister explained that while the Bahamas was signatory to the UNCRC, the convention had to be fully adopted into internal law (ratified) or it would have little effect on the governance of the country. The Bahamas ratified the convention in 1991, but held a reservation over the provisions of Article 2 – which outlaws discrimination – as it related to the conference of citizenship.
“I hate to call it a loophole, what they are doing is not illegal but what they’re doing creates a barrier, that’s the important thing to understand, that’s the problem,” Mr Bannister said.
The United States became a signatory to the UNCRC in 1995; however, it has yet to ratify the convention despite its active role in the drafting of the document. The US, Somalia and South Sudan are the only three UN members not to have ratified the UNCRC.