A new policy aimed at curbing illegal immigration in the Bahamas is leading to the detention of dozens of children, say Haitian activists who are calling the policy inhumane and disruptive to families.
Activists say between 35 and 40 children are being detained inside the Carmichael Road Detention Center in Nassau after they were picked up along with their parents during a new round of immigration raids that began Saturday. The raids coincide with a new policy that went into effect that same day. The policy makes it harder for undocumented migrants to live and work in the Bahamas, and requires nationals of other countries to have a passport.
“One of the biggest problems we have with this policy is the children,” the Rev. Antoine St. Louis said Monday shortly after visiting the detention center along with Haitian embassy officials. “They are picking up the children and when we question them, they say they are not deporting the children, they are sending them along with their parents who are being deported.”
St. Louis, pastor at Victory Chapel Church of the Nazarene, said parents are being given a choice: they can take the children with them or give custody to someone in the Bahamas who has legal status.
“It is disrupting the family,” said St. Louis, 50, who was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents.
St. Louis said most of the detainees are Haitians including 228 who are scheduled to be deported to Haiti Tuesday aboard two Port-au-Prince bound airplanes. They were picked up by authorities after before the policy went into effect.
In September, Bahamas Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell announced that the Bahamas “will not accept applications for people who do not have legal status in the Bahamas to work, and anyone who comes to do so, the application will be refused and the applicant will be arrested and charged and deported,” he said.
“Those people who have been born here will get a particular residence permit which will allow them to work and live here until such time as their status pursuant to any application under the terms of the constitution is decided,” Mitchell said.
In addition, he said, lawmakers are also considering a permanent ban on giving legal status to anyone who has ever been deported from the Bahamas.
Mitchell said the policy isn’t aimed at any particular group in the Bahamas, which has wrestled with illegal migration from Haiti and Cuba. Last year, the country came under attack from Cuban-Americans in South Florida after it repatriated 24 Cubans, including eight who were offered asylum in Panama after saying they were beaten by a guard at the Nassau detention center.
Last month, during the United Nations General Assembly, Mitchell said containing illegal immigration is a priority for the Bahamas that goes “to the very root of our existence.”
“No Bahamian doubts that the control of illegal immigration is central to our survivability as a country, central to our national identity and central to our national security,” he said.
But Haitian activists say the policy is unfair, and reminiscent of the 1970s and ’80s when similar raids forced many to return to Haiti despite spending most of their lives in the Bahamas. Today, some of those who were forced to go to Haiti are back in the country and once more face deportation, said Jetta Baptiste, president of the Haitian Bahamian Society of the Bahamas.
“You have thousands of kids who have already submitted their application to the immigration department, everything is ready to be processed and they won’t approve it,” Baptiste said. “They have applications pending for years. They have thousands of stateless people who are legally entitled to be in the Bahamas. Enough is enough.”
Haiti’s Ambassador to the Bahamas Antonio Rodrigue said officials are still trying to determine how many Haitians were picked up, and of them, how many are children. They are also trying to determine if any unaccompanied children are being detained.
Haiti Foreign Minister Duly Brutus, who was returning to the country late Monday from an overseas trip, said he plans to raise the issue Tuesday with President Michel Martelly.