Twice in recent months, small wooden sloops overloaded with Haitians attempting to enter The Bahamas illegally have managed to slip past authorities and land on shore embarrassingly close to the back yard of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force. It was easy to point fingers and say it was the RBDF’s fault.
But in our search for an easy scapegoat, we have seriously overlooked two critical facts. One, what is driving the increase in attempts to enter The Bahamas, and two, what are we expecting from a Defence Force which is under-equipped, understaffed, under the thumb of other authorities and in charge of protecting the entire Bahamas?
We tackle the second set of facts first.
The role of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force is a strange one. Only in times of war or military action is it the lead agency. We may be wrong but we cannot recall a time when it exercised that role with the exception of a two-year peacekeeping mission in Haiti from 1994 to 1996. The rest of the time, which we assume is all the time, its role is to support the services of the Royal Bahamas Police Force, Immigration, Customs, Marine Resources Unit (formerly Fisheries), Port Department, Bahamas National Trust, Urban Renewal and NEMA.
In other words, it is responsible to - and takes its orders from - others. That is not an excuse, it is a key to understanding how the RBDF has always been treated as the outside child, acknowledged, but is never treated like the first born. And like the outside child, it has to work twice as hard to be accepted at the family dinner table. What is most remarkable is with little more than half the people power of the Royal Bahamas Police Force – RBDF, approximately 1,400, RBPF, approximately 2500 – it is charged with patrolling 100,000 miles of open ocean.
To understand the scope of the area to be covered, consider this: the body of water extending from the south coast of New Providence to the southern tip of the Tongue of the Ocean and between the Exuma chain of over 300 islands and cays and the east coast of Andros is some 6,000 square miles. The southern border of The Bahamas stretches over 300 miles.
It is not as though a sloop leaves port and hops on a highway to The Bahamas. Routes vary, cell phone circuits and whatsapp calls alert other vessels where patrols are. Because there are so many ways to make the voyage from Haiti to The Bahamas and beyond, captains zig-zag, constantly alter routes to avoid detection.
No matter how our forces try to outwit them, as we get smarter and tougher, so will they. They have already demonstrated the ability and willingness to go hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid detection. If, for example, the Defence Force vessel is in the area of Inagua, boats will go east or to the Turks and Caicos, or 100 miles to the west near Ragged Island. They may go hundreds of miles in the other direction, west, to avoid capture. Routes can take them northward in the Atlantic Ocean along the east coast of the central islands, skirting Cat island and Eleuthera or though the 130-mile long Exuma chain. If a Defence Force vessel is seen off Exuma, word gets out and boats go all the way out into the ocean and come up from Cat Island to Eleuthera and beyond, areas that cover tens of thousands of square miles.
Why, you ask, can’t radar detect them? Standard radar can detect a steel hulled-vessel as far out as 60 miles or even more, but can only detect a wooden sloop up to seven miles out and depending on conditions, even less. And we are talking hundreds of miles of ocean. Because the sloops are small and low, they literally slip under standard radar.
Additionally, the sloops are increasingly ducking into small coves and behind cover by day and sailing at night.
Without additional vessels, well-equipped aircraft and constant cooperation and communication among relevant agencies who can provide additional eyes, the Defence Force’s few vessels, no matter how much they move up and down and crisscross the vast waters trying to outsmart those bent on outsmarting them, are engaged in the equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack.
There have been significant improvements since the beginning of the decentralisation program involving the installation of bases at strategic locations throughout The Bahamas including Inagua and Ragged Island. Plans call for ships and aircraft to be stationed at those bases and that should make a big difference in the ability to respond more quickly. Sending a ship from the base at Coral Harbour could take up to a day to try to catch a single sloop.
At a recent courtesy call on the Commander of the RBDF, Commodore Tellis Bethel, by the Bahamas Christian Council, church leaders reviewed the progress and applauded the efforts of the men and women of the Defence Force for assisting hundreds of Bahamians who might otherwise have been without water and food and power following the hurricanes of 2016 and 2017. Leaders of the churches praised the Commander and pledged their support. That speaks volumes in a country where the church plays such an active role in everyday life and in decision-making at the highest level.
Despite limitations of intelligence-gathering capabilities, equipment and manpower, the RBDF record is impressive.
In 2017, the Defence Force apprehended some 1200 migrants, rescued or assisted nearly 200 people at sea, apprehended a go-fast vessel seizing marijuana with a street value of almost $1.5m, apprehended several Dominican fishing vessels and Bahamian vessels with Dominicans onboard, seriously putting a dent in poaching offences. But it is when that single sloop slips through that fingers are pointed and questions asked.
Maybe the RBDF needs to step up its media campaign or the Ministry of National Security includes it with greater frequency in its releases. It does seem ironic that Bahamas Information Services provides coverage for every Cabinet minister even for courtesy calls yet you had to search high and low to find out about the achievements of and issues facing the Defence Force.
Ideally, what needs to happen is to staff up and speedily equip the Defence Force and, equally important, improve the intelligence network between the various law enforcement agencies it supports. Establishment of its more remote bases will go a long way especially if combined with aircraft equipped with infra-red and thermal imaging technology and sophisticated radar if those ships and aircraft are permanently stationed at remote bases.
Ultimately, the real solution to Haitians attempting to land in Nassau is to fix the Haitian economy. That will take vision, regional cooperation and international financial participation. Citizens are only driven from their country of birth by desperation.
Until the living standards of the average desperately poor Haitian improve there will be many among them who will look to other horizons. Those who can afford it and are brave enough to make the journey will pay the smugglers to secure their place on a sloop taking them here to the Bahamas and, as most of them hope, onwards to the United States.
This has been the case for decades. We can help the RBDF in its role in policing this desperate migration but rest assured until there is a seismic change in living standards for the people of Haiti there hope for a better life will forever lie over the horizon.