In the newspaper business there is an old adage, 1000 deaths is a statistic, the tragic death of a four-year-old is news. The individual focus that makes a story a story hit home in recent weeks as the story of one individual, robbed of his freedom, then vanishing, unfolded. It was news that rocked the nation and moved us after years of turning our backs on immigration-related brutality.
What happened to one Jean Rony Jean-Charles generated a rallying cry of disbelief and sympathy.
In brief, Mr Jean-Charles, born in The Bahamas, was picked up by Immigration in one of its raids leading to a December 31 deadline of clearing the country of people residing here illegally. But Mr Jean-Charles’ was not illegal. He was, as we said, born in The Bahamas. His sister took his birth documents to officials day after day, trying to get her brother released from Carmichael Road Detention Centre. Her pleas, apparently, fell on deaf ears. It was only when senior Queen’s Counsel lawyer and long-time human rights advocate Fred Smith got wind of the case and went to the detention centre that it attracted attention, partly because he was booted out and not allowed to see his client. Higher authorities intervened the following day and Mr Smith, QC, returned. He began pleading the case, reaching out to the community, his impassioned voice articulating their fears – it could have been any one of them. But it was Mr Jean-Charles who was thrown in the detention centre, kept there for three months, and then disappeared, mysteriously.
Was he expelled to Haiti? (Deportation would presume he was Haitian.) Or was there some other explanation?
The court has given the state until today to produce Mr Jean-Charles or answer some very tough questions.
The treatment of this single individual galvanised the public. Rumours and stories of single incidents had been circulating for years, rumblings of over-zealous or money-hungry Immigration officers, bribes, pay-offs. But nothing like the Jean Rony Jean-Charles story ever brought awareness to the disgrace with which a segment of our population is treated in the name of ridding the country of illegals when those uncontrolled raids open the door to the worst kind of corruption. The demands force the poorest among us to buy their freedom as Immigration officials work their thriving underworld business of pay-offs for drop-offs before Carmichael or pretending they did not see. The racket is so pervasive that one officer can pick up someone who may not have his papers on him for a very legitimate reason and tell him he’ll give him a break. What he gives him is a phone number to call and the pay-off amount. The going rate this week, we are reliably informed, is $1,200. It can go as high as $2,500.
We know there are good officers who mean well and do their best. We have no doubt they are troubled by what they know. But now the Jean Rony Jean-Charles story is out there, no one from the Minister on down can continue to pretend such horror does not exist and hope that conditions will improve. They won’t. The corruption and cruelty we would expect to see in some lesser developed country is happening right here and it must be stopped.
We understand the origin, but it does not justify the despicable behaviour. Let us hope that Mr Jean-Charles is well and appears in court or some proof of his whereabouts is presented. If not, we dread to think of the international repercussions and the repressed anger that will erupt in this country. Either way, and we hope it is the former, Immigration must clean house and the Minister, whom we believe would never tolerate such behaviour, must stand up, speak up, man up and say ‘Never again under my watch’ and he must ensure the law take its course with those who are caught. An internal investigation and police involvement must follow.
On the surface, corruption is evil but when it extends to depriving someone of his freedom, it is at its most dangerous. It is a danger The Bahamas can ill afford.