LAST week’s controversial exchanges about the treatment of displaced migrants following the destruction by Hurricane Dorian of the shanty towns in Abaco should have come as no surprise. As everyone knows by now, the potentially explosive issue of Haitian immigration to The Bahamas goes back a long way.
We are told that, although successive governments from the Pindling era and beyond put in place immigration laws to control the influx of migrants from our southern neighbour, what was on the statute book was often not enforced properly. Lax immigration policies and procedures allowed unregulated shanty towns like the Mudd and Pigeon Pea to develop, with scant regard for building codes or other requirements. These became a haven for Haitian migrants, many of whom had entered the country illegally, and grew to such an extent that it had become almost too difficult to do anything about them – not least because, reportedly, some 40 per cent of people living there had immigration status through work permits.
While causing a human tragedy of horrendous proportions, the plain reality is that the force of Mother Nature has at the same time removed the long-standing problem of what to do about the shanty towns. Now that they have, effectively, been destroyed – with many people losing everything including their documents -- the Government is faced with a genuine dilemma in dealing with the survivors. Dorian has focused world attention on The Bahamas so that the way displaced people, including undocumented and illegal immigrants, are handled will now be put in the spotlight, with international donors of humanitarian assistance and financial aid watching what is happening. In the wake of such a natural disaster there is the need, as a member of the international community, to respect human rights and treat people decently and humanely. But, equally, the laws of the country have to be applied.
Clearly, the redevelopment of Abaco will be a monumental task that could take years and few would disagree with the government’s decision to declare the shanty towns a no-building zone so that those concerned should not be permitted to start any sort of reconstruction that would almost inevitably develop into something similar. Nonetheless, the property rights of those living in them have to be respected. If, as has been proposed, this area could be turned into a park and memorial site, that seems to be appropriate.
Meanwhile, surely the priority should be to resettle the survivors while, in slower time, helping them to establish their future, including their immigration status, before finding employment. The suggestion by one Senator to give undocumented storm evacuees freedom to reside and work legally for a year looks to be a helpful way forward – and, while a general amnesty for migrants is normally something to be avoided since it encourages others to enter the country illegally, it surely ought to be considered in the exceptional circumstances of Dorian, particularly as the numbers are relatively small in relation to the overall domestic population.
It was encouraging that in the immediate aftermath of Dorian the Immigration Minister stated that the Government was committed to assisting all victims affected by the storm regardless of origin or status. But he was later reported to have said that undocumented migrants would have no special protection against deportation. Moreover, the Government’s announcement that migrants who have lost their job “need to go home” has been described by the group Rights Bahamas as part of the Government’s “savage and cold-hearted” position in relation to those displaced by Dorian.
It is claimed that the tougher government rhetoric recently is in response to what is regarded as a long-term and deep-rooted resentment of Haitians – and it is disturbing to read that Rights Bahama is reporting to bodies like the UNHCR and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about possible unfair treatment of migrants that might even be illegal; for example, in relation to property rights. This could have a damaging effect on The Bahamas if not carefully handled in a sensitive manner.
The sad fact is that, despite the best efforts of the RBDF to intercept vessels from Haiti and prevent waves if illegal migrants, the threat of such mass migration is intensifying as political unrest there becomes worse, with no functioning government and a failed economy. So, by common consent, strong measures are necessary to try to keep the floodgates closed, but the effects of Dorian have created a one-off case for exceptional treatment of those affected by it through no fault of their own.
In my view, public relations in all this is important – not propaganda which seeks to mislead people, but a positive presentation of what the Government is doing, since it is what people think is happening that is important and their views will depend on receiving accurate and up-to-date information.
There seems to be a need to achieve a balance between enforcing the law in order to reassure people that the Government has not gone soft on immigration and, at the same time, showing a humane attitude at a time of unprecedented disaster.
CLIMATE CHANGE PROTESTERS OVER THE TOP
I wonder whether others reacted as I did – “Oh, not again” -- to the news of yet another act of vandalism by the climate change movement Extinction Rebellion. After attempting to close down London in April, they pulled off a new protest last week in the centre of the city. Using an old fire engine, a group of activists sprayed a red liquid simulating blood over a government building housing the Treasury to protest against the global economic system which, they claim, increases carbon emissions. The police were present but, to the fury of many, did not initially intervene though they later made some arrests.
Now Extinction Rebellion protesters have descended en masse yet once more on central London to shut down major sites and to cause chaos and disruption in the streets for a period of two weeks. This seems already to be a larger protest than last April. The organisers term it peaceful civil disobedience and are calling on politicians to outline what their plans are to tackle climate change and global warming and on the government to declare a “climate and ecological emergency”.
It is ironic that the protesters should target their own country when Britain’s performance in relation to the issue has been relatively good, with a commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. One can only wonder how they would fare in Beijing if they sought to complain about China’s performance as one of the world’s biggest polluters.
I believe this behaviour of the protesters on such a large scale should not be tolerated in a civilised and ordered society. There was wide condemnation of what was seen as a feeble police reaction to the chaos and disruption in London last April when many complained that civil disobedience on a scale that violates the rights of millions to go about their daily lives peacefully was unacceptable. While they have an obligation to serve the whole population and not pander to protest groups, whatever the worthiness of their cause, the police do at least claim to be committed to balancing the right to peaceful protest with ensuring disruption to communities is kept to a minimum. So, many have welcomed recent reports of a pre-emptive police raid on Extinction Rebellion’s London warehouse to confiscate equipment used to blockade roads and build protest sites.
Few people now argue that climate change and global warming is not happening, but what is still not clear is the extent to which human activity is contributing to this. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that sea levels are likely to rise as a result of global warming. Thus, as a Small Island Developing State with low lying coastal areas, The Bahamas is under threat as never before. The Prime Minister spoke eloquently about this at the UN General Assembly in September when he urged all nations to treat climate change as an emergency and reminded those concerned that the low-lying islands of The Bahamas were particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
Meanwhile, there is growing scepticism about the activities of young people, the most prominent of whom is the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, who, the cynics say, is being used by unknown backers to hector governments about the danger of the Earth becoming an uninhabitable furnace and to advocate the destruction of the global economic system in order to reduce carbon emissions.
But many declare it is simply unrealistic to return to a form of existence not seen since before the Industrial Revolution, by – to mention just two examples -- stopping air travel or banning diesel engine vehicles. There is general agreement that climate change and global warming have to be tackled. The immediate answer is surely to ensure implementation of the important 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
A MEMORABLE RUGBY WORLD CUP
Aficionados will have no difficulty in rising at the crack of dawn to watch the live ESPN coverage of the rugby world cup now taking place in far-off Japan This six-week feast of top class rugby football, which takes place every four years, has teams from twenty countries competing. They are headed by the all-conquering New Zealand All Blacks who this time around will be seriously challenged by several others including England. Last weekend the English team secured its third win during the pool stage – with victory over a strong Argentinian side in a match which was televised at 4 am our time – and has reached the knockout quarter-final.
By general consent this has been a successful tournament – with each stadium of a high standard and good accommodation for players and visiting supporters, and enthusiastic crowds in their thousands. Naturally, I am rooting for England to go all the way and win the world cup. The last time an English team achieved that was in 2003. Their coach has been saying that his team is well trained and well prepared, describing his players as “fit, fast, fierce and ready to go.“ But here in The Bahamas in order to watch the action live you do have to set that alarm clock!