By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE government is preparing to evict residents living in newly built illegal structures on Abaco, a move that could possibly displace hundreds.
The announcement was made by government officials during a meeting held on the island on Friday, who noted that eviction letters would be given specifically to those found in contravention of the latest Supreme Court order.
The order, which blocks the government from clearing out existing shanty towns in the country, also prevents residents from altering or expanding those communities.
Still, there have been concerns in Abaco about shanty town dwellers erecting illegal structures on government land, specifically the Farm Road, despite the order. One official estimates unregulated structures in one community have grown from 200 to about 400 since July.
In a bid to rectify the issue, Foreign Affairs Minister Darren Henfield told Abaconions on Friday: “The Cabinet of the Bahamas is attempting, according to the law, that we will move a notice to place upon homes that were built illegally and take a period of two weeks for those homes to be removed or they will be removed by the proper authority.
“This is an order of government approach to how we deal with irregular communities in the Bahamas specifically those that were built since the new building order was issued. So, we anticipate these notices will be placed by the Ministry of Works along with the Ministry of National Security sometime this week.
“We hope that this will be placed this week. The attorney general is not here so we cannot report to him on how far along we are on that process,” Mr Henfield said at the Abaco meeting.
North and Central Abaco administrator, Terrece Bootle-Laing, when contacted by this newspaper, said officials are keen on handling the matter carefully yet lawfully.
“(The minister) said they will be issued letters of notice giving two weeks to vacate the premises and thereafter, the government will proceed to demolish the said premise if there is no stop order or anything on the part of the court.
“But they are confident that they could proceed...”
Before Hurricane Dorian decimated them last year, shanty towns across Abaco had more than 1,000 homes and an estimated population size of 3,500, according to government reports.
One of the few shanty towns left in Abaco post Dorian was the Farm, located in Treasure Cay. According to Mrs Bootle-Laing, the community was estimated to house nearly 1,000 people before the Category Five storm hit the island in early September.
She said those numbers have since increased due to the relocation of those displaced from the storm.
She said: “Since Dorian, we have seen visually that there has been an escalation in building and the relocation of persons who may have resided in the Mudd and Pigeon Pea so we’re not certain of the numbers as is.
“We know that we expect those numbers to increase from what we had pre-Dorian. Pre-Dorian, the Farm area if memory serves me was nearing 1,000 based on what records have been made available to us in terms of our count.”
Chairman of Treasure Cay local government Stephanie Hield expressed similar sentiments to this newspaper yesterday, saying she estimated that some 400 illegal structures have been constructed in the Farm shanty town since Dorian last year.
The figure is a 50 percent increase from what Ms Hield to the Tribune in July, where she estimated that some 200 new structures had been built at the time.
After Dorian, the government issued a cease order with immediate effect for The Mudd, The Peas, Sandbanks and the Farm in order to prevent anyone from building in those areas.
Asked if there were more shanty town communities on the island, Mrs Bootle-Laing replied that they were. However, she said the government has already pledged to crack down on the issue.
“There are still other areas of concern. Hope Town being one of them still has concerns with regard to its shanty town increasing in number post Dorian from about to 300 to well over 600,” she told this newspaper.
“We know of areas that have re-routed away from the Sandbanks area to the other side but the concentration, as far as we are aware is the Farm now.”
Residents in Abaco have been sounding the alarm over unsanctioned construction on the island in recent weeks, saying it was unfair some people are being allowed certain liberties, while others are being treated like “fourth class citizens” in their own country.
Others have expressed concern that if the matter was not dealt with soon, it could mirror the pre-Dorian situation which saw several large unregulated shanty towns on the island.
A community representative, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Tribune that many of the dwellers living in the Farm are Bahamians of Haitian descent. Others residing in the community, the local said, are undocumented migrants.
The Abaco resident said the recent eviction announcement has left many shanty town residents fearful and panicked, as they are uncertain where they and their families will move.
He said while he does not believe residents should be given free property to build their homes, a plan should be put in place to house them in the interim.
“People are panicking because they have nowhere to go and they don’t know what to do,” he said. “And one of the questions raised (during Friday’s meeting) was if you give the people two weeks but is there any plan? Is there any place where these people are going to go and (one MP) said they could stay by friends and other people.
“And so, (a) pastor said one of the greatest concerns is during this pandemic, you have people all over the place and it’s going to become a panic.”
The resident said there is also a stigma attached to the Haitian community in Abaco, with many locals blaming them for the frequent looting, theft and violence recently taking place on the island.
“I know the problem with Haitians is illegal building, that I can confirm,” he said. “But as far as Haitian breaking in and this and that — Haitians have been in Abaco for the longest. We never had these sort of break ins.
“So, they need to figure out whoever they allowing to come on these islands, the employers, it’s their responsibility to check on their police records. Everyone wants to come Abaco now because they believe this is a place to make money.”
On Sunday, National Security Minister Marvin Dames, Police Commissioner Paul Rolle and Defense Force Commodore Raymond King along with other officials traveled to Abaco to address concerns by islanders in regards to crime and other issues.
The meeting was held in Sandy Point, located in South Abaco.