By Malcolm Strachan
LAST week’s landing of a sloop containing perhaps as many as 250 illegal migrants has added fuel to what already has been a fiery debate. For as long as we can remember, even the most dispassionate Bahamian has not been shy to voice his or her opinion about immigration. In this context, the clashing perspectives on illegal immigrants – or if we are to be honest with ourselves and speak plainly – our problem with the illegal migration of Haitians, has been a subject of intense debate all around the country this past week.
From the Haitian-Bahamian population to human rights activists, many have lashed the government in the wake of the apprehension exercises taking place since the images of the empty sloop within sight of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force headlined the front pages.
Bahamians were outraged. Rightfully so. Any Bahamian travelling to Haiti, or any other country, for that matter, has to enter legally through the front door – the airport. It is a simple and undisputable fact.
Yet, we become so discombobulated trying to unravel ourselves from the web of emotional perspectives which this national issue evokes. Perhaps, it is because the manner in which the issue re-emerged that has caused so many within our country to have their knickers in a twist.
The prime minister’s announcement last month cautioning all illegal immigrants to either become regularised or face deportation by the end of the year if they do not leave has caused quite a stir. After what has been a rocky start to governing the country, some saw it as him reaching for the oldest trick in the political playbook to pander to the electorate. Others have seen it as potentially opening the floodgates for an intense battle on an issue which attracts unwanted international attention. Human rights leader Fred Smith, who was once very chummy with the new administration, has been on the offensive since the announcement was made in Parliament.
For what should be a discussion strictly on the legality of this matter is now being turned into a debate on humanity.
The pastor of the Metropolitan Church of the Nazarene, the church Prime Minister Minnis visited after his announcement created a shockwave in the nation, has also expressed his views on the matter. Pastor Nelson Pierre said he would like to see the illegal migrants treated humanely and called for increased diplomacy between Haiti and The Bahamas as a path to finding a solution. However, the same cans have been kicked around for decades to no avail.
The reality is that some find it far too difficult to have this conversation without allowing emotions to overtake them and slanting their sense of reason. This is perhaps why any headway that can be made in this regard is stalled. We are too sensitive when it comes to what must be done with illegal immigration.
The narrative plays out the same way, one administration after the other. Once a stance is taken, the best defence is for those with opposing views to decry the government for its inhumane treatment of Haitian migrants. It is not long before the general public becomes confused on the issue, along with the international community, which leads to the government softening its approach. Hence, every government term, we end up right back at square one without scratching the surface.
But if we are truly experiencing a changing tide in our country, maybe it’s time to take the kiddie gloves off.
What we face is a systemic issue that will not solely be solved by Immigration officers scouring the streets apprehending illegal migrants. It won’t be fixed by detaining and deporting them. The only thing that happens then is what always happens – the migrants, or a whole new group of them, make the next journey to what they perceive to be a “better life”. And the government dispenses much-needed funds from the public purse to support these efforts.
Despite what many of the “Monday morning quarterbacks” view as inhumane treatment, they certainly aren’t deterred enough that they pick a new destination as a result of the “cruelty” they face when illegally landing on Bahamian shores. And we certainly don’t see them complaining when they are allowed to utilise public services for free that Bahamians typically end up having to pay for. If there is anything that is inhumane, it is the living conditions they subject themselves to by choosing to live outside of society in makeshift shanty towns. Yet, this is what they refer to as a better life.
Their version of a better life should not come at the expense of a worsening of a Bahamian’s life in their own country.
As much as this has been placed on the backburner, the problem continues to fester and has grown into a cancer that has infected the fabric of Bahamian society.
This cancer will continue to grow and eat away at us, making us more hateful and, perhaps, xenophobic as we struggle to hold on to the remnants of what makes us feel intrinsically Bahamian.
The government must surely know they are losing this fight tactically, which they often do. We constantly focus on treating the symptoms rather than attacking the cause.
Indubitably, there is a sophisticated network that is responsible for trafficking thousands of illegal migrants, year after year through our borders. This is not occurring without the help of Bahamians. It cannot happen without Bahamians who know the waters, and not without moles that have infiltrated our marine corps.
We are at an unfortunate place in our country’s history where the power of a dollar means more than passing on a birthright. Bahamians are betraying their own people for financial gain.
The government has to ensure the law reflects that any Bahamian involved in the human trafficking of illegal migrants faces the harshest repercussions possible. Moreover, punishments must become deterrents for Haitians that reside here legally who have information on incoming sloops, as well as those who lend assistance to their brothers and sisters upon their arrival.
Bahamians employing undocumented Haitians should not be exempt from increased penalties either. The price of participating in this egregious act against Bahamian society must be far greater than the financial or opportunistic benefits.
Certainly, this is now a matter of national security. When a boat pulls up a stone’s throw away from the RBDF base undetected, it is a matter of national security.
Those up in arms about the treatment of Haitians who break the law by entering the country illegally must put on their “big-boy pants”. These individuals are breaking the law, and by that act alone, are criminals. A government of a law-abiding land must never be complicit or pliable when faced with such acts.
As it stands, we recognise we have a plethora of social ills and it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that illegal immigration sucks the life’s blood out of our society – be it through increased crime, fewer jobs, or the government directing resources to assist illegals.
While, we agree any apprehension exercise must be carried out humanely, where does the narrative that it has been done in an inhumane fashion come from? As far as we know, the officers of the Department of Immigration conduct their duties in a very professional manner. Further, if that has not been the case, then any officer that has carried out their duties in such a way should be relieved of same.
That being said, when we hear the sensationalised statements about the treatment of illegal migrants, we must consider how mischievous and misleading it is to the general public and the international community. It is disappointing that Fred Smith continues to put out statements exaggerating what is taking place on the ground.
As a learned attorney, we lean on his expertise, as well as the other legal minds within the community to add value to the discussion – not stall efforts.
However, Prime Minister Minnis does not get a free pass in all of this. His statements were poorly planned. And yet again, he finds himself in a situation where he wrote a cheque with his mouth that we hope he and his government can cash.
December 31 will be here in a matter of weeks. He can expect the pressure from the local and international community to mount as this issue continues to churn in the spotlight. We hope that they can finally get this one right.
The government has to lead in this regard. To that end, we have to be responsible and do our jobs as Bahamian citizens to look at the issues from a balanced lens and keep them accountable. We must not allow this to become about hate towards Haitians, but rather, about our country and what it needs to be sustainable.
Everything else is just noise.