By Dennis Nichols
It was in 2005 in The Bahamas, that I first got acquainted with what I call the Haitian phenomenon. I don’t think I’d known a single person from that island nation before. Now, a sizeable portion of the population of the school where I taught in Nassau was either Haitian-born or Haitian-Bahamian. At about the same time I got to know some of their parents and other adults of similar stock. And just months ago I found out that some neighbours across the alley-way from where I live in Georgetown are Haitian.
The phenomenon I’m referring to is the ‘voluntary’ and the ‘forced’ displacement of Haitians from their native land to other countries, including the 700-island Bahamian archipelago that began some 200 years ago, and the largely antagonistic attitude of Bahamians to it, and them. Of course the antagonism is not limited to The Bahamas.
In places like Florida in the United States, the neighbouring Dominican Republic, and even as far south as Chile in South America, Haitians have endured varying levels of hardship, prejudice, discrimination, and deportation. In Guyana it is still too early to judge their impact on our society, including any such similar problems they may encounter here.
Whatever its cause or motivation, the migration across a relatively short stretch of the Caribbean Sea/Atlantic Ocean has been defined by ad hoc and make-do arrangements, makeshift vessels, and frequent loss of life. In my estimation, Haitians have died at sea more frequently than any other ocean-risking migrant group in recent times, particularly in their efforts to reach Florida and the Bahamian islands, the closest of which is some 180 kilometres away.
For the first three months of this year, there have already been two major incidents of Haitian ‘boat people’ drowning in their efforts to get to The Bahamas and maybe Florida. In the first incident in February, 27 men, women and children perished when their boat sank near Abaco. In the second, just over a month ago, 15 migrants died when their boat capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands near the Southern Bahamas.
Survivors of such mishaps are usually charged and repatriated to Haiti, heightening the frustration and anger both Haitians and Bahamians feel over such tragedies. Since the beginning of this year, some 300 Haitians have been apprehended and ordered deported back to the place where some of them spent the last of their hard-earned cash seeking to improve their lives. It’s a human tragedy of unbelievable angst.
Authorities in both nations question the thinking behind such risky undertakings, and urge prospective migrants to reconsider their options. Bahamian Foreign Affairs Minister Darren Henfield, a former Defence Force officer recently said, “I’ve seen these incidences one too many times … This is a very dangerous journey to take across the Windward Passage and enter into the Atlantic and begin to move on these vessels that are unsafe.”
“There are no life vests; no saving apparatus on them. Most of the people who come on these boats can’t swim. So if something goes wrong, as they often do, then we end up with these kinds of unfortunate events and tragic outcomes. So I would hope that people think twice before embarking on these journeys to come to The Bahamas.”
Such statements, and statistics, don’t begin to tell the sad tale of Haiti’s illegal migrants, literally dying in their quest to escape poverty and disaster, and seek betterment outside their homeland. There, among the poorest of the poor, many exist at a mere subsistence level in a country where the unemployment rate hovers at around 70%; and where, in the capital Port-au-Prince, boys and men dodge traffic and wipe moving cars in the hope of earning a few coins.
Here are some interesting figures.
According to a recent World Bank overview, with a population of eight million and a GDP per capita of US$870, six million Haitians live below the poverty line (less than US$2.41 per day) while 2.5 million dangle below the extreme poverty line (US$1.23 per day) The latter is roughly equivalent to about $6,000 (Guyana) per month.
With an average life span of 49.2 years and a literacy rate of 53%, the Haitian populace is also susceptible to frequent bouts of political and social unrest compounded by their vulnerability to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes; the last major one killed between 230,000 and 300,000 people (about one-third our population) Forgive my sarcasm, but who wouldn’t want to live there?
The Haitians I knew and have heard of through fellow non-Bahamians, are for the most part simple, honest, hard-working people, and in the public schools their children often out-perform their Bahamian counterparts. They are employed in the kinds of jobs Bahamians find too demeaning and low-paying, such as domestic labour, gardening, construction, retail and wholesale merchandise, and agriculture. Their labour is cheap and readily available and, as one letter writer to a local newspaper admitted, “Without illegal immigrants, we would simply collapse as a functioning economy,”
Of course there’s the other side of the coin, as many young Haitian-Bahamian men, feeling dispossessed and marginalized, have run afoul of the law, and some were said to have joined gangs like Zoe Pound, the notorious South Miami Haitian criminal organization with links in Nassau and Grand Bahama among other non-Florida locales. But even that gang had its roots in Haitian pride and resistance against attacks and discrimination from other ethnic groups in South Florida.
Being in The Bahamas for the past two weeks, I have become reacquainted with the Haitians’ plight as well as their forbearance and willingness to tolerate castigation and criticism. A week ago I listened in near unbelief as an elderly woman vehemently voiced her disapproval of Haitian migrants by expressing a desire that the Bahamian Coast Guard should ‘drown ‘em’ when they apprehend them at sea. She appeared to be, as most Bahamians claim, a Christian, and her sentiments though very un-Christlike, may be at least tacitly endorsed by many others.
But as alluded to earlier, not all Bahamians feel that way. Those who understand the historical ties and the social/economic ‘benefits’ to their country, realise that tens of thousands of Bahamians have strong links, historically, culturally, and yes genetically, to Haitians and Haitian-Bahamians. Most of their ancestors had arrived in the archipelago along a migrant chain that, 300 years ago, was as foreign then to the Lucayan natives as illegal immigrants now appear to be.
This small window into a complicated picture is severely limiting. For one thing, it cannot look inside the minds and hearts of those desperately clinging to survival or those zealously protecting a nation’s sovereignty. Here in Guyana, with oil wealth imminent and with an anticipated influx of foreign nationals, we can at least try to understand why some people would risk dislocation and death in their attempt to flee poverty and disaster.
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