A moratorium on deportations for Haitians in the Bahamas who survived Hurricane Dorian when it slammed the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama last month has run its course.
Speaking to members of Parliament for the first time since Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis issued a warning Wednesday to undocumented migrants in the island nation.
“I serve notice to all those who are here illegally that they can leave voluntarily or they will be forced to leave,” Minnis said.
The Bahamas has confirmed 60 deaths from Dorian, with another 400 people still missing. Minnis also said there are more than 1,600 people still living in shelters. This week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would be providing additional aid as search and rescue efforts continue in Abaco, where debris removal began last week.
In the immediate aftermath of the devastating storm, Minnis had said his administration would put a hold on deportations and personally told Haitians during a visit to Abaco that they would be assisted. But now, a month after the storm, the government is changing its tune.
Immigration Minister Elsworth Johansen told reporters earlier this week that shelters would not be used to “circumvent the law.”
“If you’re in a shelter and you’re undocumented and you’re not here in the right way, you’re still subject to deportation and the enforcement of the immigration laws,” Johnson told the Nassau Guardian. “There’s an Immigration Act and the Immigration Act is in full effect and the director [of immigration] understands that he must enforce it.”
The deportation announcement comes after the Bahamas government issued a statement last month saying that residents of four shantytowns, among them The Mudd and Sand Banks in Abaco, were forbidden from rebuilding. The government also said that it would acquire the land of the shantytowns and monitor them by drone and helicopter to ensure people do not return.
Bahamas Attorney General Carl Bethel said Thursday afternoon no one in a shelter is currently being asked to show immigration documents.That however will change once individuals start to renter society and try to resume their lives.
“I can assure you that no person in a hurricane shelter anywhere in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas is being subjected to any kind of immigration inquiry,” he told the Miami Herald. “None. That’s a firm and fixed policy of the government.”
Bethel could not say how many undocumented Haitian migrants lived in the Bahamas. But the government’s decision is creating fear among immigrants and their advocates, who over the years have criticized the Bahamas for its treatment of Haitians.
“At some point in time people are going to move out of the shelters ... they are going to seek to make arrangements for employment etc,” Bethel said. “At that point it’s a legitimate inquiry. You’re no longer a refugee, you’re moving out and seeking to move into the mainstream again. But enter that mainstream in the correct way.”
Haitian activists in Miami have condemned the decision to deport undocumented Haitians.
“It is unconscionable for the Bahamas to deport undocumented immigrants after they’ve gone through such traumatic experiences,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement. “It is inhumane to deport [people] to Haiti which is going through one of the worst political crises in its history, with grave human-rights abuses, arbitrary killings and massacres.”
During the address, Minnis reported that the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency has received $5.1 million in donations as of Monday. The amount does not include funds that have been pledged, he said.
In addition, he said, the United Nations Development Program will contribute $1 million for Dorian recovery efforts. The Inter-American Development Bank has also provided a $100 million loan.
“We must maximize our ability to recover as quickly as possible in order to quickly get our communities and the economy back on track following catastrophic events,” Minnis said. “A key part of any readiness plan is to have access to resources as quickly accessible to speed up response and recovery efforts.”