By FREDRICK SMITH, QC
HURRICANE Dorian brought the many serious issues regarding shanty towns in Abaco into sharp focus. If ever doubted, it is now crystal clear that the residents of these communities are among the most vulnerable who live in our midst. It is also beyond question that these unfortunates remain victims of a brand of xenophobia so deep-rooted and persistent that not even a tragedy of this magnitude can assuage it.
Hence the government’s no-rebuild order which singles out shanty towns specifically. If such a measure is really necessary in the circumstances, surely it should apply to all affected areas. Why pinpoint these communities in particular? Why does the order not extend to the wealthy foreign homeowners in Bakers Bay, or Bahamians, both black and white, who live in other areas of Abaco? Clearly, it is a case of discrimination, pure and simple.
In general, Family Islanders are resilient, self-reliant – regardless of their background or ethnic origin. They usually know best how to go about reconstructing their lives. It is normal for people to do all they can, using the support of the government, charitable donations and whatever is left of their former homes to try and put some sort of roof over their heads. We can’t blame anyone for wanting that.
Unless and until someone proves otherwise in a court of law, the residents of shanty towns have as much right as anyone else to return to their homes and salvage what they can of their former lives.
The post-hurricane help honeymoon is coming to an end. Hotels and other shelters in Nassau are approaching capacity. If not allowed to rebuild, at least in the short term, where will former shanty town residents go? The tent cities that have been proposed are not a permanent solution, so what is the government’s long term plan?
Surely, the FNM will not use this terrible tragedy to move in with the tractors and illegally bulldoze what is left of these people’s lives – people who, at the very least, have the right to return to collect their property and valuables, and also search for the bodies of the many loved ones who are still missing.
It is easy to use sweeping platitudes and say that if the Mudd and other shanty town communities had been previously demolished, somehow the extent of the tragedy would have been mitigated. Such massive over simplifications ignore the fact that the government would still have faced the vexing problem that confronts it today – what to do with 5,000 people forcibly made homeless overnight – by either state or storm? It also conveniently sweeps under the rug the hateful circumstances that have led us to this point.
Firstly, since 2014, the government has been singularly focused on illegally removing, or at the very least limiting, access to citizenship by people of Haitian descent, particularly those born to Haitian parents. It has been documented in the newspapers, and adjudicated on in the courts. Recourse for injustice is extremely limited, and a one-way ticket to Haiti via the Carmichael Road Detention Centre has been the only certainty for those souls caught inside an inherently biased system.
It is this system, and its enforcement – zealously upheld and protected by the state – that has bred an environment where people would rather stare down a category five hurricane than entrust their safety to officials who have repeatedly targeted them illegally. If found to be true that the government did all it could to evacuate shanty towns (and this remains an open question) then certainly the reason why this had so little impact on these vulnerable communities must be investigated.
Do we truly believe they are too uncivilised to prioritise their safety? Or was it that they made a calculated choice, just as they’ve had to do for generations, to stand before God’s might and beg his mercy rather than place their trust, their freedom and their children’s freedom, in the hands of a hostile and corrupt power structure?
Secondly, make no mistake, this event has shaped The Bahamas, scarred us, irreparably so – but even as we begin again, we must ensure that we do it with open eyes and hearts. The people of the shanty towns in Abaco and throughout The Bahamas are not economic dependents, but drivers of economic activity. They do not burden us, they built us up. Not just in affordable labour, exploited tirelessly, but in administrative fees for “papers”. We feed off their legal troubles and as they gamble with their livelihood; and the house always wins.
Simplistic and uninformed tropes about property rights and immigration wrongs have been rendered meaningless in the face of thousands of decimated structures, spreading as far as the eye can see. Dorian gobbled up entire communities of all stripes, it spared precious few and even now, the country is still reeling, still weeping. It is important not to get lost here, not to allow this tragedy to further strip us of our humanity and capacity to reason fairly.
We must remember that the government surveyed Abaco and determined there was no room to accommodate shanty town residents. We must remember the plan to simply flatten their homes without giving each their legally mandated day in court. We must remember that Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis said his government would not spend a dime to develop housing for them. We must acknowledge that these human beings have been denied the simple right to live on the land their ancestors were corralled onto, denied a humane process for resettlement, denied the chance to prove their ownership of land. They are apparently expected to simply disappear – out of sight, out of mind.
Thirdly, the government’s focus must be unwavering at this time. We cannot afford the resuscitation of hateful, discriminatory rhetoric at a time when the entire country stares down climate injustice that has equalised despair and desperation across all classes and ethnicities. We must not slip into lazy, time-worn patterns of “othering” and status wars. We must stop the discrimination, especially against these human beings of Haitian ethnic origin.
We must interrogate why government felt it necessary to mandate no building in shanty town zones but not the wider Marsh Harbour. Was it nothing more than a political cheap shot to gain currency as the government tries to stave off deafening public criticism over its own actions, or lack thereof, concerning its initial response and management of this disaster?
There will be plenty of time to sift through the negativity that always emerges in crisis, to make new political campaigns. But now is not that time. Let us instead commit to removing ambiguity from recent immigration statements, outlining clear steps on how the government plans to identify victims, and establish and protect their rights.
We need leadership on the front lines, not placebos for the xenophobic baseline. Does the government have a plan to humanely address the rights of migrants and their children, and their descendants who have been displaced? The legal fight over their right to claim land in Abaco will not be washed away by the storm, nor will the previous injustices of the government. However, the focus now must be singular and rooted in equity and humanity and love. There is simply too much at stake.
We have experienced a major tragedy; it’s important that public statements reflect a concern for the greater good and do not foster division and hatred. Human rights defenders have been working tirelessly on the front lines assisting government in supporting victims and collecting data on missing people. The work, and the impact it reveals on the most vulnerable, speaks for itself. We must all stand in the gaps created by systemic inequality and lain bare by the ravages of this storm.
The Bahamas remains in deep shock over this, our most visceral taste of climate injustice. The singular focus of the government at this time should be to protect, preserve, and unfortunately in some cases establish, the rights of all within its borders.
The lives and our quality of life of all ought to be tantamount. Any scurrilous statements otherwise only betray their own vicious prejudice.
The residents of shanty towns are not just “Haitians”, they are human beings. If we cannot find it in our hearts to treat them as such, to recognise their urgent vulnerability and intense suffering at this moment, to do what is decent and right, I fear it will leave an indelible stain on our national conscience forever.