Friday, February 17, 2012 Haitian immigration grew into today's social problem in The Bahamas

How and why the Haitian problem grew

tribune24 editorial

Nassau, The Bahamas

WE have always had Haitians in the Bahamas. Like all Bahamians they came by different routes. Peaceful citizens, they were fully embraced by the locals, and many of them made outstanding contributions to their new country.

For example, the first black man to sit in the House of Assembly -- remaining there for 33 years - was Stephen Dillet, a Haitian by birth.

His mother was African, his father a French Army Officer. In Haiti's revolution of 1802, young Stephen and his mother were put on a boat headed for Cuba to find safe haven. However, their boat was captured by a British privateer and taken to Nassau, where the Dillets settled, and Stephen later entered politics. He was also an active Free Mason, having been appointed Deputy Provincial Grand Master in 1857. Another account of his life has him settling in the US where he owned slaves, then coming to Nassau where, in addition to being a member of the House, he was the island's coroner and postmaster.

It is recorded that at one time the historic Balcony House on Market Street --now a museum and believed to be the oldest house in the Bahamas dating back to 1788 -- was his home.
And so, over the years, Haitians settled in the Bahamas, fully participated in the island's activities, were embraced by other Bahamians -- all, at one time or another, themselves immigrants -- and were solidly woven into the Bahamas' human fabric. In those days, no one questioned their identity or their right to be here. Today, however, the story has changed. Bahamians whose tendrils once clung to Mother Haiti are terrified to share their now "shameful" secret with their fellow Bahamians.

Over the years, the situation changed. The PLP came on the scene with the late Sir Lynden Pindling promising that no longer would Bahamians be "hewers of wood and drawers of water". Manual labour was not only demeaning, but abhorrent to Bahamian ears -- "that's Haitian work!" And so Bahamians left the farms. Slowly Haitians started to fill the gaps. This was a different type of Haitian -- they were even unsettling to their Haitian brothers who had quietly settled here and become Bahamians. Haitian-Bahamians feared that the spotlight would also be turned on them. They, like many Bahamians, did not welcome the unskilled who had started to infiltrate the country, and who, as the illegal numbers increased, grew into what is today the "Haitian problem".

On a radio talk show in 2006, Bahamian Paul Cumberbatch, describing himself as a "small farmer" with more than 200 acres of land, had a serious complaint with then PLP Minister Shane Gibson, who at the time headed Immigration. Mr Cumberbatch said he needed 500 Haitians on his farm, and did not agree that any of those already in the Bahamas should be sent back to Haiti. He felt that all those with jobs -- legal or illegal-- should be regularised and only the jobless should be returned to Haiti.

"When Sir Lynden was prime minister," he said, "no minister could do what Shane (Gibson) is doing now." He said when then deputy prime minister Arthur Hanna, who had Immigration in his portfolio, and later when the late Sir Clement Maynard headed Immigration he was given whatever work permits he needed for his Haitians. Those were peaceful days, he said.

And so this is how Haitian immigration grew into today's social problem -- Bahamians refused to work the land -- themselves labelling it as "Haitian work." And PLP politicians pandering to the needs of their supporters by giving them permits to bring in unlimited numbers of unskilled workers to replace Bahamians on the farm. These Haitians, according to Mr Cumberbatch, were landed at the Coral Harbour Defence Force base. Some Bahamians, who were able to get unlimited numbers of permits, developed side businesses by farming out their Haitians to other Bahamians who had no political godfathers -- at a good price, of course.

Today, Deputy Prime Minister Brent Symonette, now in charge of Immigration, is trying to regularise the status of foreigners, among them Haitians. As for work permits, more than half approved were for unskilled jobs such as handymen and housekeepers. Mr Symonette said that the majority of people who received Bahamian citizenship were born in the Bahamas to foreigners and/or lived here all their lives. Many others were women married to Bahamian men. The Opposition's claim that 10,000 people were awarded citizenship was "grossly exaggerated," he said.

"People keep talking about 10,000 citizenships given by the FNM. That's wrong, wrong, wrong," said Haitian Ambassador Antonio Rodrigue.

"During the year," he said, "we had about 500 renounce -- so where are those 10,000?" Mr Rodrigue wanted to know.

Bahamian voters have to remember that this is "silly season" when lies abound. To qualify as an intelligent and responsible voter, they will have to be smarter than the liars and themselves search for the truth.

February 16, 2012

tribune24 editorial