The response to Haitians arriving in Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries has been lamentable at best and contemptible at worst. They have been treated, for the most part, as pariahs, particularly by the ignorant and bigoted.
Recently, in Guyana, the arrival of Haitians has been greeted with a hysteria that was evident in other parts of the region. Many alarmist remarks were made and reported in the media; among them that the Haitians would spread HIV/Aids and the practice of voodoo.
Those who so glibly claimed that the Haitians would spread HIV/Aids obviously failed to recognise that the disease is not non-communicable. HIV is spread primarily by unprotected sex (including anal and oral sex), contaminated blood transfusions, hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding.
HIV is not spread by air or water, mosquitoes, ticks or other insects, saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of a person with HIV, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing dishes, silverware, or drinking glasses. Therefore, to contract HIV, there must be sexual relations with an infected person.
The scaremongers, who make the claim about Haitians spreading HIV/Aids, are either ignorant of how the disease is spread, or simply regarded facts as an obstacle to their objectives.
Regarding the practice of voodoo, despite denigrating it, the purveyors appear to accord it greater powers than their own religions and practices. Yet there is no evidence, except in books of fiction and fanciful stories, that supports the capability of voodoo. Again, those who repeat these avowals are either ignorant of the facts or conveniently discard them in pursuit of their own purposes.
Beyond the science of these matters, the scaremongering about Haitians assumes that those who arrive in Caribbean countries fit into the narrative of disease-infected, devil-worshippers. The reality is that they are no more than persons who are fleeing very difficult economic circumstances in Haiti, in search of opportunities.
Caribbean people from all countries should understand that motivation. At times of economic decline in their own countries, nationals of every Caribbean country, without exception, have sought economic refuge in the United States, Canada, Europe and even nearby Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Guyanese particularly should empathise with prejudices against them, because they suffered them for years in the Caribbean. For close to five decades, until recently when Guyana’s wealth in oil and gas was unearthed, Guyanese were treated as unwelcome scoundrels with the worst possible labels ascribed to them, regardless of gender or race.
In any event, the only member state of CARICOM that should have a serious and legitimate concern about Haitian refugees is The Bahamas, which has been the recipient of boatloads of Haitians, trying to escape conditions in their own country.
Incidentally, this observation about The Bahamas in relation to Haitians should not obscure the fact that, while today it has to manage the Haitian refugee situation very carefully because it places a severe strain on its financial capacity and its economy, it has absorbed Haitians over many years – some of whom founded families that are now leading Bahamians.
Further, although it is a member of the Caribbean Community, The Bahamas, like Montserrat, was granted the right to opt out of certain of the requirements of the CARICOM Treaty, including freedom of movement of people. In this sense, The Bahamas is not a full member of CARICOM, and has no treaty obligation to allow freedom of entry of CARICOM nationals in any category
Therefore, CARICOM countries, other than The Bahamas and Montserrat, but including Guyana, are legally bound to grant CARICOM nationals the right to remain for a period of six months, provided they are not a security risk and they can demonstrate the ability not to become a charge upon the State during their stay. In principle, this right applies to Haitian nationals as well.
However, it should be noted that the governments of two CARICOM countries, Antigua and Barbuda and St Kitts-Nevis, were allowed to reserve their positions because, over the last four decades, they have been the recipients of a disproportionately large number of CARICOM nationals, and would be hard-pressed to accept any more who attempt to stay in the country illegally.
But to be clear, the right given to CARICOM nationals, including Haitians, to enter and remain for six months in another CARICOM country is not an unfettered right as explained earlier. It is also not a right to remain in the country illegally. Therefore, Haitians, like all other CARICOM nationals, who stay beyond the six-month period are liable for deportation.
Regrettably, unscrupulous persons in Haiti and elsewhere have deliberately twisted the rights accorded by the CARICOM Treaty, as adjudicated by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), to lure Haitians into believing that they can arrive in and remain in CARICOM countries to live and work.
In this connection, Barbados became a target of this illegal operation after its government, in what clearly it thought was fair-mindedness, chose to remove the necessity for Haitians to apply to enter Barbados. After reported incidents of abuse, the government announced that it “was compelled” to reinstitute the requirement for Haitians to have visas.
The Haitian people are vulnerable. They cannot be blamed for their shameless exploitation by bandits. They certainly do not deserve the prejudiced epithets that have been used to describe them by other Caribbean people.
The reality is that small CARICOM countries, already confronted with major economic challenges, cannot afford unchecked Haitian entry as refugees or to seek employment. After all, the unemployed of Haiti is estimated to be larger than the entire populations of all CARICOM countries combined.
It is against that reality that the entry of Haitians should be measured; it should not be judged by branding Haitians with false and unfair characterisations they do not deserve. Anyone who knows Haiti would know that the Haitians are a talented and creative people who struggle and survive despite terrible odds.
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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