Cable: Haitian-Bahamian tension could lead to violence
BY BRENT DEAN
NG Deputy News Editor
Hundreds of Haitian migrants land illegally in The Bahamas each year
The Americans are of the view that the unaddressed issue of Haitian integration in The Bahamas could eventually lead to ethnic violence in this country, according to a diplomatic cable from the United States Embassy in Nassau.
The detailed nearly 3,500-word cable from June 2009, obtained by The Nassau Guardian from WikiLeaks, is an extensive analysis by the embassy of the tense Haitian situation in The Bahamas.
“The existence of a large, dissatisfied and poorly-integrated ethnic minority is a potential risk to social and political stability in The Bahamas,” said the embassy.
There are a wide range of estimates as to how many Haitians reside in The Bahamas. The numbers range from 30,000 to 70,000 in a country of 350,000 people.
Many Haitians live in shantytowns and the majority of these shantytowns are in New Providence. However, two of the largest are in Abaco (The Mud and Pigeon Pea).
Successive governments, for the most part, have maintained the country’s traditional policy position regarding Haitians, pushing repatriation of the undocumented and the regularization of those eligible for legal status.
This policy has not solved the problem. There are no official numbers, but many Haitian children born to parents illegally in The Bahamas are ‘stateless’. They consider themselves Bahamians, but have no legal status in this country, having not taken up the Haitian status of their parents.
The Americans consider further engagement of the Haitian community as a possible means of preventing conflict between the communities.
“The GCOB (Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas) would be well-served to encourage integration, as some commentators recognize, both to diffuse existing animosities and (to) avoid future manifestations of discontent,” said the cable.
“In the short term, given the economic and social pressures, GCOB anti-immigration policy is unlikely to change. As a result, well-entrenched Haitian communities are barely tolerated and the risk of ethnic flare-ups rises in proportion to economic hardship and stricter immigration enforcement. The possibility of overt inter-ethnic violence persists.”
No sustained inter-ethnic violence between Bahamians and Haitians has emerged, though Bahamians regularly express frustration, and sometimes hostility, via talk radio about the Haitian situation.
The Americans suggested that in a down economy, with increasing numbers of Haitians coming to the country and increased anti-Haitian sentiment, Haitian-Bahamian conflict could at some point emerge in various parts of The Bahamas.
“Inner-city Nassau neighborhoods are most at risk, but the potential for conflict also exists in suburbs where new subdivisions encroach on existing migrant settlements,” said the cable.
“Conflict is also possible in outlying islands, which are proportionately greater affected by demographic changes or economic deterioration, and the competition for scarce land and jobs is fiercer.”
The Haitian vote
In recent years, the Free National Movement (FNM) has publicly been ‘softer’ in its public tone towards Haitians than the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which has held more to the traditional policy of repatriation.
At a rally in March at Clifford Park, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham began by reaching out to the Haitian community, acknowledging the return of the former leader of the country.
“Firstly, I want to give a shout out to my Haitian brothers and sisters and say how pleased I am that President Aristide has been allowed to return back to Haiti,” Ingraham said.
Though a casual remark, Ingraham’s reference to Haitians in The Bahamas as his “brothers and sisters” was a significant demonstration of solidarity by a Bahamian politician and leader.
The extent of anti-Haitian sentiment in The Bahamas was evident after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Ingraham suspended repatriations and released Haitians being detained at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre.
Talk radio across the country was overwhelmed by those expressing anger with Ingraham’s decision.
Thus far Haitians have not organized a political lobby to agitate for their interests in The Bahamas. There are no openly Haitian representatives in Parliament.
With the large number of Haitians in the country, however, the Americans realize that they would have significant power if they came together.
“A well-organized community might already have the power to swing a close election and wield increased influence as a result. Haitians in The Bahamas, however, do not appear as yet to have the will or organizational wherewithal to risk an open challenge to the status quo,” said the cable.
“Instead, most prefer to seek integration in place while others move on to the U.S.”
With the large number of Haitians in the country, despite the current reluctance by them to openly enter front-line politics, sustained and open Haitian representation in Parliament going forward is inevitable.
The flow of people and discrimination
Cables on China have revealed the American concerns regarding The Bahamas being used as a transit point to smuggle Chinese to the United States.
Many of the Haitians that come to The Bahamas are smuggled into the country by Bahamians. The Americans described these smugglers as experienced.
“Migrants from poorer Caribbean countries are smuggled to or through The Bahamas, destined for the U.S., by well-established, island-hopping networks. Many are run by Bahamian smugglers based in Freeport, Grand Bahama or Bimini, two of the closest points to Florida shores,” said the cable.
These migrants risk their lives to come to The Bahamas, as the Americans noted. Haitians have relayed stories revealing that they have been told by smugglers to jump overboard from vessels into the sea and to swim to shore when they approach Bahamian islands. Some who could not swim drowned after paying $2,000 to $3,000 to escape the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
“Such tragic incidents highlight the desperation of the migrants and indicate that the illicit Haitian migration flow to and through The Bahamas is unlikely to stop,” said the cable.
After suffering through this ordeal, many Haitian migrants are faced with discrimination once they settle in The Bahamas.
“Bahamians strongly resent the social cost, cultural impact, and crime linked – in popular stereotypes certainly – to Haitian immigration. These sentiments are confirmed in contacts with government officials, political activists, especially the youth, and NGO leaders who interact with both communities,” the Americans observed in the cable.
“Haitians are thought to impose disproportionate demands on inadequate social services, primarily health and education, due to the higher birth rate in the Haitian community.”
These issues, the Americans observed, have the potential to explode someday in The Bahamas if constructive policies are not introduced to further integration.
Jun 15, 2011