By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
THE reality that the majority of people impacted by the government’s crackdown on shanty towns have Haitian ethnicity is a matter of arithmetic, not discrimination, according to the affidavit of Labour Minister Dion Foulkes.
Mr Foulkes, head of the Shanty Town Action Task Force (SATF), defended the government’s motivations for the “Shanty Town Project” and shot down claims of constitutional rights violations in a 200-page affidavit filed last week.
Mr Foulkes said the project was intending to eliminate unsafe and unsanitary living conditions associated with those buildings and, in turn, regulate and elevate the living conditions of people living in those unregulated communities.
“To the extent that a large number of such persons may seem to be affected is a simple question of arithmetic,” the affidavit read, “and the respondents deny any attempt to target any group.”
Mr Foulkes also noted the SATF’s survey illustrated shanty town residents are not exclusively of Haitian ethnicity.
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis, Attorney General Carl Bethel, Mr Foulkes, Public Works Minister Desmond Bannister, Bahamas Power and Light, and the Water and Sewerage Corporation are listed as the respondents in a judicial review application against their “eradication policy”.
Mr Foulkes said he did not intend to address all of the allegations put forward by the applicants’ affidavits because many of their paragraphs contained narrative and rhetoric that were irrelevant to the legal challenge, and sensationalised and politicised certain immigration issues and themes.
Mr Foulkes underscored any interference with rights to possession and enjoyment of property would be in accordance with laws relative to the enforcement of planning control.
“There is no policy of eradication in the sense that has been painted by the applicants,” his affidavit read.
“The government’s reform initiative is designed to result in the removal of unregulated structures in these communities that are not compliant with planning and development laws.”
“Obviously,” it read, “the natural consequence of any action to remove illegal housing, pursuant to the exercise of statutory powers would be to displace persons, if their houses are found to have been illegally constructed.
“It cannot be denied that the unregulated housing and living conditions pose obvious and inherent dangers both to residents of these shanty towns and indeed to the neighbouring and wider community.”
The government announced plans for a comprehensive initiative to remove illegal, unregulated, and unsafe buildings located in shanty towns in January 2018.
The SATF was formed as an inter-ministerial working committee with representation from a cross section of 16 entities from government departments, private and public utility providers and NGOs.
Mr Foulkes claimed it was always understood that the committee had only an advisory role, with any executive action to be carried independently by statutory bodies with the power to carry out respective functions.
He rejected claims that authorised decision makers were taking orders from himself or the SATF, and furthered Building Regulation Act notices given to shanty town residents were issued by the relevant decisions makers pursuant to their statutory powers.
Mr Foulkes said the SATF developed timelines for conducting research and gathering data on shanty towns across the country, taking action to address unregulated housing, and any collateral action: New Providence on August 10, 2018; while there were plans for the same on Abaco on July 31, 2019; and Eleuthera and Andros on August 17, 2019.
Mr Foulkes said the action timelines were set as far back as possible to minimise impact on affected persons, and during summer months so as not to disrupt students during the academic year.
Shanty towns have a long history of unregulated construction and substandard, unhygienic and dangerous living conditions, according to Mr Foulkes, who referenced a 2013 report from the Department of Health Environmental Services in his affidavit.
Mr Foulkes said the unsanitary and deplorable conditions exposed by the 2013 DEHS report were confirmed in more recent inspections by the SATF teams. He noted the substandard conditions were also acknowledged by the applicants.
In addressing humanitarian concerns, Mr Foulkes said it was appreciated by the government that the action of removing or tearing down structures or homes that were unlawfully constructed might result in the dislocation of people.
The SATF’s Alternative Housing Committee had prepared a report that identified more than 168 apartments and other housing complexes, he said, including several government complexes along with contact information for property owners and applicable rental rates and conditions.
Mr Foulkes and Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis in public statements have suggested the government intends to take possession of the land to develop subdivisions, and that the government had an immediate right on the basis the land is crown land.
In his affidavit, Mr Foulkes said he did not think those statements constituted evidence the government was motivated by a desire to regain possession of the land. He pointed out the majority of the communes were located on crown land that was leased by the government for specific agricultural and not residential purposes. If the government wanted to regain immediate possession, he said, it could simply revoke those leases. Mr Foulkes noted the government also had the ability to compulsorily acquire land, and this statutory process could have been invoked.
On the matter of consultation, Mr Foulkes acknowledged he made public statements indicating there would be a consultation process, and town hall meetings. However, he said he did not consider they could have founded any legitimate expectation by residents that they would be specifically consulted before the exercise of powers of the Ministry of Works or other decision makers. He explained his comments suggesting there was a “consultation process” were simply alluding to a general process of consulting with stakeholders and resource persons to ensure the team had the relevant representations and information to properly execute the project. And as for the proposed town hall meetings, Mr Foulkes said while his statements demonstrated “an intent or hope to hold certain meetings” - there were “no specific promises” made.
He said any expectation that shantytown residents would be consulted was fulfilled by meetings with various interest groups, and outlined 11 meetings with the League of Haitian Pastors, the Haitian Embassy, United Haitian Bahamian Association, Rights Bahamas, Organisation to Teach and Assist Haitians, the Christian Council and various religious denominations.
He also knocked the applicants’ claim there was differential treatment between shanty towns and the government’s plan for the regeneration of Over-the-Hill communities. He argued there was no evidence that the communities shared enough similar attributes to draw a comparison.