Bahamas defends immigration policy, invites OAS commission to visit

Immigration officers escort a woman and child on to the immigration bus bound for the Bahamas’ Carmichael Road Detention Center in November 2014 after a new immigration policy took effect.
Immigration officers escort a woman and child on to the immigration bus bound for the Bahamas’ Carmichael Road Detention Center in November 2014 after a new immigration policy took effect.

Defending its new controversial immigration policy that overwhelmingly targets Haitian migrants, the Bahamas on Friday invited members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit the island-nation and see for themselves how the policy is being carried out.

Last month, the commission, part of the Organization of American States, called on the Bahamas to improve conditions for detainees at its Carmichael Road Detention Center in Nassau following the Nov. 1 launch of the policy and subsequent criticism by human-rights defenders. The Caribbean Institute for Human Rights, the International Human Rights Clinic of the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, and the Wshington, D.C.-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights have all condemned the policy and asked the commission for precautionary measures at the detention center to protect detainees.

But Damian Gomez, the Bahamas’ minister of state for legal affairs, rejected the claims Friday.

“The petitioners have failed to identify a single victim of human-rights abuses in the Bahamas or a single failing in our domestic jurisdiction,” Gomez told the commission at a hearing in Washington, D.C.

Gomez also rejected accusations by a petitioner who accused the Bahamas of launching a “targeted campaign to commit genocide” of Haitians in the country.

“They even maintain there are concentration camps in the Bahamas,” said Gomez, calling the allegations “outlandish and bizarre.” “The false, baseless, malicious allegations made against the Bahamas and its people are deserving of a response.”

Human-rights activists say since the new policy went into effect, scores of undocumented migrants — and even some Bahamians — have been picked up in immigration raids, detained, and then deported. The policy, they say, also puts people at risk of “statelessness.’’

“Since the raids began, communities have complained about verbal and physical abuse by authorities as well as discrimination against and mistreatment of women and children,” said Wade McMullen, managing attorney with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “The raids have resulted in overcrowded detention conditions that amount to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.”

McMullen said even recent changes and a pending amendment to the immigration law are problematic.

“As best we can tell, the government is now requiring all persons to apply for a new document of authorization to stay in the country called a belonger’s permit,” he said. “In order to apply for this permit an applicant must now submit over a dozen different documents, including official documentation of their parents’ nationality. It remains unclear what procedures have been adopted to ensure a fair examination of all applications.”

Frederick Smith, a human-rights activist in the Bahamas who has come under attack for criticizing the policy, echoed McMullen’s concerns while noting that children of migrants are also at risk of being unable to get an education because of new requirements.

“There is no legal aid, justice is limited, language issues are a great barrier, the judicial system doesn’t provide a remedy to the thousands who are having their rights abused,” Smith said. “Anti-Haitian prejudice has become so ingrained in the Bahamian psyche that the terms undocumented, illegal, or Haitian have become synonymous.”

Gomez said his country is committed to defending human rights, saying it has provided education and healthcare irrespective of immigration status. He also provided photos of a new safe house for women and children awaiting detention, created as a result of complaints that children were being kept with adults at Carmichael.

Commission members said they will consider the offer to visit. Commission President Rose Marie Antoine also noted her own concerns about statelessness, recalling the case of the Dominican Republic, where thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent are at risk of deportation come June because of a 2013 constitutional-court ruling revoking citizenship of anyone born to immigrants without proper documentation dating back to 1929.

That ruling has been strongly condemned by the Caribbean Community, of which the Bahamas and Haiti are members. But last month, as leaders wrapped up a two-day meeting in the Bahamas, they were mum about the issue.

Reginald Dumas, a former Trinidad and Tobago ambassador, has criticized the leaders’ silence.

“If there is a human-rights issue in the Bahamas in regard to Haitians, you should discuss that with the government of the Bahamas,” he said. “I am not saying you want to embarrass the government of the Bahamas or castigate the government of the Bahamas, but at least say we discussed this issue. Not a word.”

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