Abaconian Editor and Publisher
The August 31 eviction notice to one of the Haitian communities on Abaco has brought the immigrant problem to the forefront again. Solutions must be formulated on a national level. The flow of additional immigrants must be drastically reduced.
Preliminary census figures have just been released giving the Bahamas a total population of approximately 303,000. Various estimates give the Bahamas a 25 percent Haitian population or greater which would translate to more than 75,000 persons. This is an alarming figure for any country, large or small. Current figures for Abaco have not been released but our total population is estimated to be between 12,000 and 14,000. Using the lower estimate and a 25 per cent Haitian population, we may have more than 3,000 Haitian immigrants here. We are waiting to see to see the real numbers. Do we want a substantial foreign group in our midst who do not speak our language and who are not integrating into Bahamian society.
The migration of low class people to healthier economic zones is a normal response by people worldwide. Within a country people have historically migrated from agricultural areas to the cities where the economic opportunities are perceived to be greater. In this day within countries and across international borders the movement of humans continues as the disadvantaged seek a better life. China, Mexico, Indonesia and other countries have the same problem but to a larger scale with thousands headed to the cities from the country-side. Within the Bahamas, residents, particularly the younger ones, move from the islands of little action to New Providence where they believe they will find work and opportunity. Freeport and Abaco are secondary destinations. Abaco is attracting a middle class of Bahamians who have had enough of Nassau and are willing to start over where crime and traffic are manageable.
On the international picture the movement is similar. Although the movement of people across borders is restricted by valid documents, desperate people are not deterred by a lack of documents. They go anyway. Germany has its Turkish population, France has the Algerians, Spain has the Moroccans, Italy has the Bosnians, Canada is getting the Chinese, the United States is the prime destination for the world's poor with Mexicans and Cubans heading the list of successful immigrants. These host countries are large with robust economies. The Bahamas is a small country comprised of many islands. Several are quite prosperous compared to neighboring Caribbean countries but most are economically marginal. Due to a fact of nature, the Bahamas' chain of islands is close to Haiti to the south and a short distance from the United States in the north. Many of the six million Haitians have the same desires as their brethren in Mexico, Turkey and China and would rather be somewhere else where the opportunities look better. For the Haitians, it is a short hop to the Bahamas where they catch their breath and plan the final jump to Florida. Alas for us, while catching their breath here, they settle in, learn a trade, get proficient in a useful language and raise a family, usually a very large family. Many of the southern Bahamas islands have no resident Haitians. If a load of immigrants is unfortunate enough to land there, the new arrivals are quickly apprehended and sent home. On New Providence and Abaco, there is a sufficient entrenched Haitian population that new arrivals are quickly taken in and disappear into the immigrant communities. In booming economies, many will find work.
What are the long term consequences of this increasing and incessant immigrant flow? From the humanitarian viewpoint, they are humans who have wants and needs like the rest of us. They get sick and need medical attention. Their children need an education.
The first generation of immigrants take menial jobs, gardening, wheel-barrow jobs, maid work, and the like. For the most part, the next generation is not satisfied with this work. They have not lived in Haiti and are not familiar with the poverty their parents talk about. They have been to school and are familiar with higher standards of living. Although living in the States may be a pleasant thought for them, it is not the burning issue which drove their parents. The tide of new immigrants must be stemmed. They come in groups of 30, 40 to 60 at a time on rickety sloops and coastal freighters which put them off on deserted shores. From there they are met by friends and relatives and brought into the closed Haitian communities. Some filter through and end up in Florida but a substantial number discover that "It's Better in the Bahamas" and stay. The Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Hubert Ingraham, mentioned on September 15, 1996 at a dinner for Local Government official that the immigrant problem in Pigeon Pea was a Marsh Harbour problem. However, central government has to be involved. Social services, the police, immigration department and others must all come together to find solutions. Now Marsh Harbour is taking action and bringing pressure on the Haitians to move. Without a place to move to, the pressure is, in turn, shifted to Central Government which must provide a place for them.
However, we do not want a slum as we have now in Marsh Harbour. Most Abaco people worry that the bush around a new subdivision will become littered with derelict vehicles, squatter's shacks on the periphery, garbage and unsanitary conditions as we now see in Pigeon Pea and The Mud communities. We want to know that central government will give authority to local people to monitor the construction to make sure that proper procedures are followed. Abaco does not need a hidden slum, "out of sight, out of mind."
It is ironic that the immigration policy of the Bahamas successfully restricts educated persons from coming and working here because they apply in an accepted procedure and are perceived as a threat to Bahamian advancement. These are the people who could help raise the standard of education or have skills we are lacking. We do not have sufficient players who understand the "new world economy and technology." We talk of computer literacy but we are years from this goal on a national level. We are limiting our future by turning a blind eye to the illiterate immigrant while denying entry to those with technical and academic knowledge.
The new immigrant arrivals slip through the cracks and are becoming established in alarming quantities. Sir William Allen, Minister of Finance, said in March 1990, "It is a singular irony that our immigration laws seem least effective in relation to that illegal immigrant which now poses the greatest threat to the national welfare. The immigrant which appears to most effectively outmaneuver our national immigration policy is uneducated, unskilled, illiterate and poor.. . . It certainly prolongs the journey to first world status, if indeed that is where we wish to go."
The country needs to face the problem and decide if we are going to allow this to continue. Will we allow this drain on our social services, our schools, our law enforcement agencies? The more we allow in, the more we lower our overall standards.
Forty Haitian nationals were brought into Marsh Harbour Police Station on October 24 for what ASP Russell, Officer in Charge of the Abaco District, described as "processing." Many of them were on their way to work in the cays and were "picked up" moments before boarding Albury's Ferry en route for Hope Town and Guana Cay. Others were drawn from the Mud and Pigeon Peas. The operation, carried out by Chief Immigration Officer Errol Ferguson, Immigration officials and ten police officers, was part of continuing efforts to regulate the status of illegal immigrants on Abaco. Twenty-one of the forty were found to be without proper documentation and were sent to Nassau.
Mr. Ferguson indicated several months ago that such random raids would occur until the serious issue of illegal immigrants residing and working on Abaco is resolved.