IT WOULD seem some people need to be reminded that there was a hurricane that devastated our islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama a little over a month ago.
After all, so many are busily arguing over immigration that one wouldn’t think we still don’t know the extent of the tragedy that befell those islands.
We don’t know what the final death toll will be. We don’t know the cost of the damage. We don’t know how long it will be before the islands will be habitable again.
And yet the national conversation is alive with people complaining about migrants – and by migrants, it is the Haitian community that is the main target.
The law is the law, goes the refrain from far too many people who would complain if the government showed up tomorrow demanding final payment for their unpaid property tax or imposed a fine for driving while using a phone.
The law is the law, true, but it’s the law to pay required duties on imported materials, for example, and yet – quite rightly – the government has passed exigency orders so people do not need to bear excessive costs as they try to rebuild. The government can change laws or pass temporary exemptions if it wishes.
Too many are using this as a way of abusing people affected by the storm – and people don’t even need to be Haitian to be the target of such abuse, they just need to live nearby.
For those saying get rid of all those living in shanty towns, a reminder that only about 20 percent of residents of shanty towns were undocumented according to a survey last year. So four in five people from there have some form of legal status – be it being Bahamian or having a work or spousal permit. Many have some form of property rights for areas within the shanty towns. Why would we wish to trample on those who have a right to be in the country?
We should pick our words carefully in such an atmosphere. Algernon Cargill is quoted in today’s Tribune talking about how undocumented migrants should not return to Abaco because living in poor conditions could help to spread disease.
He said: “We have discouraged persons who don’t have a legal claim for returning because those who live in the migrant communities like the Farm and other places, they have to recognise that these areas are unsafe...”
The same warning then should hold true for those who do have a legal claim for returning. If a community is unsafe, just say that area is unsafe. A piece of paper won’t be the difference between a disease spreading or not.
At the same time, immigration officials were pictured on Friday in shanty towns in Abaco. Doing what? We do not know - the government has not deigned to tell the public what its officers were doing. We also do not know how many migrants have been deported recently - with our calls on the subject unanswered, so we cannot tell you if the government is taking migrants out of the country or whether this is all just talk on their part.
We must not let public policy get swept up in xenophobia. Politicians would do well not to pander to such attitudes.
We need to concentrate on the tragedy itself. The immigration laws haven’t changed since the storm – so why so much talk all of a sudden? It feels like some people are using this moment to advance an agenda that’s nothing to do with the storm itself.
What we really need to do is very simple. Better still, it’s to the benefit of Bahamians. What is that thing? It’s this: help the victims. There’s nothing more important than that.