What makes one victim of Hurricane Dorian deserve different treatment from another?
We ask the question because there appears to be an increasingly hard line being drawn by the government – and the wrong side of that line is a place of little comfort.
In today’s Tribune, we report comments by Attorney General Carl Bethel, who has told people who have lost their jobs as a result of Hurricane Dorian to “go home”.
It doesn’t matter to him if their work permits are not yet expired. As far as he’s concerned, if the employer hasn’t been able to pay them, then out of the country they go.
Never mind if the employer is still trying to pick through the wreckage of their business to see if it is still viable. Never mind if the employer is retrieving records after the storm. Never mind if, like The Bae restaurant in Abaco, they have been fundraising and trying to keep going but finally realising they can’t return to where they were. Some might relocate. Some might still need skilled workers or long-time employees but they’re not quite sure when the doors will be open again. Well, it’s bad luck for them, they’ll have to hunt for employees from scratch again and it’s worse luck for the workers as we say sorry, but we ain’t got time for you now.
Mr Bethel also says that those applying for new work permits or renewing existing work permits will be required to satisfy immigration officials that satisfactory living accommodations have been arranged by the employer on behalf of the worker. What nonsense is this?
The Tribune has had several non-Bahamian workers over the years and not once has this ever been asked of us in the application process. When a new arrival has come, we have made arrangements for a hotel while the worker finds a place they want to live. Now who is to deem which accommodation will be satisfactory? Not once has the immigration department ever asked to come and see where a non-Bahamian worker is living. Does immigration have qualified building inspectors? And aren’t building inspectors likely to be busy examining those structures impacted by the power of Dorian?
Every day, our Classifieds section carries listings of properties for rent or sale - with not one ever carrying a note “certified as satisfactory by the immigration department”. Why? Because they’ve never had to.
It also seems an area ripe for the possibility of corruption - either for the granting of “satisfactory” status or steering people towards a select few landlords instead of the open market.
It feels like this is targeted at stopping shanty towns - but we hope this is not a case of opportunism to use the storm to solve problems the government has struggled to deal with through the courts. We should remember that in a survey last year, Labour Minister Dion Foulkes revealed that most residents of shanty towns have legal status, with about 20 percent undocumented. As we have said before, any replacement homes should be built to code, but if the government is saying the law is the law when it comes to deportations, they can’t ignore the law when it comes to any property rights residents of those areas might have.
The Attorney General is right that work permits are non-transferrable at present - if you get a new job, you need a new work permit. The law is the law there, though given the nature of the situation, it seems harsh not to try to find a short-term measure to allow such a transition given the special circumstances of the storm. If one workshop needs a mechanic, for example, and knows of a skilled one from another workshop that has closed down because of the storm, is there not some way to resolve that without throwing a talented worker out of the country?
We would also note with concern the suggestion from Minister of Immigration Elsworth Johnson that undocumented migrants in shelters might face deportation. If that’s the case, you can bet that if another storm comes along in two weeks, fewer people will seek the safety of shelters, and might be left in danger in the face of that future hurricane. There is little enough trust in the government from some sections of society, and this erodes that further.
More than anything, this feels like turning a cold shoulder to foreign victims of the storm, turning away strangers in a fashion that is troubling in a Christian nation. As Christ says in Matthew 25, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Foreigners around the world have been gracious in support of The Bahamas since the storm. From the US Coast Guard to the British Royal Navy, from chef José Andres with his magnificent food operation for survivors to the many donations from all corners of the world to assist. Even the tiny nation of Micronesia donated $100,000 to our cause.
How then do we turn to the foreigners in our midst and close the door on them, no matter what their pain?
We need to do better than that. We need to be better.