Publicity about the recent successful interception on the high seas of large numbers of migrants from Haiti brings to the fore yet again the serious on-going problem for The Bahamas of the attempted illegal and uncontrolled mass movement here of people from our troubled neighbour to the south.
This has been a thorny issue for many years though it appears to be worsening, not only during the current peak season because of favourable winds but as a result of deteriorating conditions in Haiti itself. The situation constitutes a serious threat to our society as a whole, to our economy and national security and even, potentially, to our existence as a sovereign state.
While Haiti, with a population of some 11 million, continues to experience political and economic instability that has led to poverty and deprivation, it is inevitable that those affected will seek a better life elsewhere. The Bahamas – seen as an ordered, functioning and wealthy country, with its archipelago stretching over some 600 miles and relatively accessible - is an attractive destination for migrants that can also be used as a springboard to the ultimate ‘Eldorado’ of the USA.
International migration is widely seen in a positive light as an important element of globalisation since it can be a source of increased prosperity for the receiving countries and generally beneficial to their societies. Orderly and controlled movement of people across national borders can contribute, in the right conditions, to economic growth and social development; and, recently, the European Union commissioner for migration described it as a moral, economic and social imperative.
By contrast, uncontrolled, disorderly and illegal mass migration is unacceptable since, self-evidently, it will place a strain on housing, education and the provision of health and other public services. It can also lead to increased crime and can threaten the security and stability of a receiving country. For example, the negative repercussions arising from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to accept up to a million refugees from the Middle East and the continuing stream of migrants crossing the Mediterranean are never-ending – and the current debate about illegal immigration in the US, together with President Trump’s disputed wall on the Mexican border, remain currently top of the news agenda because of the controversy they generate.
For The Bahamas, with a population of less than 400,000 and its various under-populated and relatively remote Family Islands, the threat of mass illegal migration from its populous neighbour is also intensifying as a result of the involvement of criminals in human trafficking or people smuggling. Our circumstances are unusual, if not unique, and it is no exaggeration -- nor is it xenophobic -- to say that this represents a ticking time bomb that needs to be dealt with urgently.
Fortunately, unlike EU leaders who decline to admit the downside of uncontrolled and illegal immigration, our own politicians readily recognise the dangers and the nation’s vulnerability. The Prime Minister has been quoted this week as saying the government is committed to dealing firmly with the problem and the Foreign Minister, Darren Henfield, has also acknowledged its seriousness and has provided assurances that steps are being taken to stem the flow of Haitian illegal migrants.
Such tough rhetoric is to be welcomed, but we believe the public should be given more information about the action being taken.
The practical difficulty of covering the vast expanse of ocean surrounding our archipelago remains daunting. To the layman, the long-term solution should be to tackle the problem as near as possible to its source. This means the area of our southern border around the Great Bahama Bank which extends for hundreds of miles. It is public knowledge the US Coast Guard has a base in Inagua, less than 80 miles from Haiti, from which it conducts aerial and other surveillance. The Royal Bahamas Defence Force also has a base in Matthew Town which could presumably be expanded and we wonder whether consideration has been given to establishing a separate base on, for example, Ragged Island as well.
Given the nature of the task, it surely makes sense the assets available to the RBDF and the way they are utilised around our many islands should be decentralised as much as possible, not only to become more effective in catching smuggling boats at an early stage but also to fulfil the remit to protect Bahamian fishing grounds and prevent poaching as well as carrying out air/sea rescue work. We also wonder about a radar system and the possible use of drones which could be shared as needed with the police and with the immigration authorities and even the Department of Correctional Services.
We believe that, subject to security constraints, as much information as possible should be made public in order to reassure people that everything possible is being done to protect the nation. This could also serve as a deterrent to the wrongdoer.
Meanwhile, it seems the general public strongly supports the existing practice of deporting illegal migrants. But in a democracy like ours we hope the responsible authorities will always be careful to act within the confines of the law and in accordance with the nation’s international obligations. We look forward to seeing the promised new Immigration Bill soon and trust the government will allow sufficient time for proper public consultation about such an important issue.