When a Haitian sloop came ashore on the southwest coast of New Providence in the wee hours of Sunday morning Bahamians were outraged. How could this have happened? Why did the Royal Bahamas Defence Force not spot and capture the would-be migrants before the boat reached shore?
The general public was in a feeding frenzy. Officials offered no facts to slake the thirst so the need to fill airtime on talk shows and inches in newsprint generated an avalanche of blame and shame. In the absence of solid information, speculation mushroomed. The Ministry of National Security or the Royal Bahamas Defence Force should have issued a statement as soon as the security breach was discovered. With a relatively new government there is still a dance around protocol, but from what we have been able to gather from a variety of sources, we are comfortable in stating the RBDF acted in good conscience. While it was not a perfect scenario, the reality is patrolling the waters of The Bahamas is a task so immense there are bound to be times when, by dumb luck or cloudy skies, a vessel determined to get through succeeds. This is not offered as an excuse but as a dose of reality. Think about how often weapons or drugs get through the scanner and eyes of the TSA at airports and then think again about the open waters of this country.
The Bahamas, not including the geographical area of Turks and Caicos, is comprised of 100,000 square miles of open ocean and inland waters. The country also has 2,000 miles of coastline. The RBDF with its 1,500 officers and marines is charged with monitoring those vast seas 24/7, 365 days a year. Prior to the Sandy Bottom Project which disbursed certain vessels to outer regions, if the RBDF received a report of a Dominican boat poaching in Bahamian waters or a sighting of a Haitian sloop which might be carrying human or other contraband, marines at the Defence Force base in Coral Harbour would have to hop aboard a ship and power out from New Providence, sometimes taking as long as a day to arrive at the site of the report.
Since the Sandy Bottom Project was implemented, captures and arrests have increased and poaching has declined so much fishermen are singing the praises of the programme, saying for the first time in decades the waters of The Bahamas are not being exploited by those who fished their own waters out.
So yes, we had a breach of coastal security and we would have all been more at ease had it not occurred. But sensational coverage and exaggeration do not help the situation. It is especially unfortunate for local and foreign interests that misinformation flooded print and social media.
The landing was not at the back door of the Defence Force as first indicated, but two miles away near Albany. It is highly unlikely 200 migrants as first ‘reported’ or anywhere close to that number were aboard the vessel that was 35-40 feet in length and would have been cramped with 40 people aboard. One early report hinted the news was met with neither action nor a sense of urgency. Subsequent information suggests the RBDF learned of the landing as it happened, notified all officials immediately and the search began instantly and in earnest.
As for numbers aboard the vessel who allegedly disappeared into the bush, there is a long-standing tradition among Haitians escaping to another country, a practice that gives authorities a good idea of the numbers they are searching for. The refugees generally carry something like a tote bag and as they approach land, they strip off their travel clothes and don the clean clothes they saved for their new life. This has been happening in The Bahamas and along the coastal US for more than 40 years. Officials judge the number of people they are looking for by the amount of clothes they find in the bush. In this case, only a small amount of clothing was found, indicating a small boatload though estimates place the number on the boat that left port to be as high as 80. That would mean two people for every foot of length of the boat, almost impossible to fathom for a distance of 400 nautical miles.
Whatever the story and plight of one sloop slipping past vessels that might have been able to spot it but did not, let us remember today’s RBDF is a greatly improved entity, a far better trained and equipped and capable version of what it once was when at one time it was reputed to be the front door and welcome mat to a gateway for smuggling.
If there is one lesson the Minister of National Security and the RBDF can learn from this incident, it is to get the facts out immediately and not let imagination take the population where absence of information leads them.