:: By Angelique V. Nixon & Alissa Trotz ::
It seems we are at a breaking point with state treatment of Haitian migrants and persons of Haitian descent, particularly in the Dominican Republic and The Bahamas. Beyond the issue of people being rendered stateless, there are disturbing reports about abusive treatment and human rights violations in The Bahamas’ detention center, mass deportations from the Dominican Republic, and the separation of families in both places. Haitian migrants and their children remain some of the most vulnerable people, and this continues to be more evident in the recent changes to immigration enforcement policies in The Bahamas and Dominican Republic. These grave conditions for Haitian migrants and people of Haitian ancestry across the Caribbean bring starkly into focus the tenuous meaning of rights and who gets to access protection. Further, pervasive xenophobic attitudes towards certain migrants, and specifically anti-Haitian sentiment, remain an underlying yet clearly serious concern facing us as a region.
Photographer Unknown (tumblr)
In the opening months of this year, there were reports of possible lynchings of two Black men in the Dominican Republic. Videos also surfaced of the public humiliation and beating of a Black man and woman, which some have linked to anti-Haitian sentiment on the island (Reginald Dumas, On Being Haitian, Trinidad & Tobago Express, 10 & 11 March 2015).
Furthermore, reports from the Bahamas (end of 2014 into 2015) have raised serious concerns about the treatment of Haitian migrants and issues of citizenship. Specifically, these include: the rounding up of Haitian or Haitian descended children and persons (those undocumented as well as those seeking citizenship); the poor and inhumane conditions of the detention facility; reports of abuse by immigration officers; the content of the policy and reforms to immigration law; the deadly slow pace of resolving citizenship for persons who apply at age 18; and the targeting of Haitians in the enforcement of changes in immigration policy.
While some of these concerns are not new, the enforcement of the new immigration policy has been the source of recent concerns. In November 2014, the Ministry of Immigration in The Bahamas announced its new policy that calls for all non-citizens in the country to carry their passports and proof of residency, while children born to non-citizen parents must have a school permit. Since the enforcement of this policy, there have been reports of mass raids in known Haitian communities, and hundreds of people have been held in an overcrowded detention facility and then deported. This new policy has raised urgent questions about whether it will violate the rights of children – who technically by law are entitled to attend school (every child living in the Bahamas has a right to an education, and the country is also party to the Convention of the Rights of the Child). Children born to non-nationals are not automatically citizens but rather have to apply at 18 for status. While the Bahamas government has insisted that they won’t be “infringing on children’s rights,” official statements have emphasized that the Bahamas will be acting in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that children will also be educated pending decisions on whether they are ‘repatriated’ (this is the terminology used by Bahamian state officials) or allowed to remain on the island.
But it’s unclear how the policy will be enforced and particularly what will happen to children unable to produce a student permit come September.
Bahamian lawyers and human rights groups have responded to this policy change and immigration enforcement in several ways. Fred Smith, President of the Grand Bahamas Human Rights Association (GBHRA), has led a campaign against the government and called on international human rights agencies to respond. He asserts that the “government’s mass round-up policy is unconstitutional and a flagrant violation of the fundamental concept that individuals are innocent until proven guilty.” Describing the government’s approach as “institutional terrorism, if by that term we mean an inhuman and degrading policy designed to strike fear in the hearts of an entire community,” Smith argues “they are breeding ‘Haitian hatred’, racism and discrimination. It seems The Bahamas is now into ethnic cleansing.” (Source)
Photograph by Tamara Sylvester
While the term ethnic cleansing may seem extreme to some, its use by Fred Smith draws attention to what he names as a ‘shock and awe’ policy. Rather than address immigration issues on a case-by-case basis, since November, migrants in the Bahamas have faced nighttime raids, separation of families, and overcrowding in the detention center. There are widespread reports of abusive treatment of migrants (of women migrants in particular) inside the detention center and during the process of “apprehension” and “deportation.” One incident that received major attention (with several articles in the Bahamas’ Tribune and Jamaica’s Gleaner) was the rape of a Jamaican detainee by a senior immigration officer, who was eventually put on leave.
This story has raised awareness about some of the issues at the detention center and with the horrific treatment of migrants, and in her case, she was held by immigration even though she had papers (spousal permit); she has brought charges against the state. (Source) The reports that haven’t received media attention are equally disturbing, as is the silence around what some describe as a targeting of people of Haitian descent and their children. Recently, a Bahamian-born woman of Haitian descent was denied maternal care in the hospital and her child denied access to school (Ava Turnquest, reporting in The Tribune, 12 & 28 April 2015). She has since filed for legal action over the immigration policy and violation of her and her child’s rights. (Source)
On 30th January, the New York Times published an article titled “Immigration Rules in Bahamas Sweep up Haitians,” which highlighted the stories of people being deported and children being deprived of status, while it also made some comparison to the rest of the region (glaringly missing, though, was any comparison to the United States’ policies on immigration and constant deportation of Haitians and ill treatment of migrants in detention centers around the country, a state of affairs described vividly by Edwidge Danticat in her 2007 book, Brother, I’m Dying).
The New York Times article provoked strong responses in Bahamian newspapers, including one that highlights the Minister of Immigration’s dismissal of the article as based on exaggerated claims and accusations from civic activists.
On 13th February 2015, however, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted a submission for precautionary measures filed by the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights (ICADH), the International Human Rights Clinic of the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, School of Law, and Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights on behalf of over 200 detainees being held at the Carmichael Road Detention Center in Nassau, The Bahamas. The Commission’s analysis concluded that the situation was serious and urgent and that measures were indeed necessary to protect persons from irreparable harm. And the Commission sent a list of requirements of response and action to the government of the Bahamas (Resolution 4/2015). (See the full text of the resolution here)
On 20th March 2015, representatives from The Bahamas government were asked directly about these issues and more during the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing on the human rights situation of migrants in the Bahamas held. (All the hearings are available online and open access through the OAS website.) The petitioners (including Grand Bahamas Human Rights Association and the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights) presented their findings, which included reports of discrimination and ill treatment of persons being held in the detention center and rounded up in mass raids. They also discussed developments since enforcement of the new immigration policy, and how the government’s push to make amendments to immigration law after the implementation of new policy can been deemed unconstitutional. In their submission, petitioners also raised the issue of intimidation and threats to human rights defenders.
The Bahamas government was represented by the Minister of State in the Attorney General’s Ministry, who strongly refuted the petitioners’ report, defended Bahamas’ history of respect for human rights, insisted that the state has not violated human rights of migrant persons, and claimed that the detention facilities are in good order with provisions in place to charge officers who violated the rights of detainees. They also informed the Commission that the policy will now include the implementation of a “belonger’s permit” which would allow persons born in the Bahamas without status to stay in the country (i.e. children born in the Bahamas to non-nationals have the right to apply for citizenship at 18). They contested the notion that these children have a “right” to citizenship (since the Bahamas has Jus Sanguinis rules: citizenship is determined by having one or both parents who are citizens and not on birthplace), and they insisting that such children were not being denied the right to attend school; hence the new policy would not be violating any rights. The state also offered an invitation to the Commission for a country visit.
Not surprisingly, these two reports offered strikingly different understandings of what is happening on the ground to migrant persons and to people of Haitian descent in particular. Further, they disclose very different views on “rights” to citizenship, how this actually works in the Bahamas and who is targeted by these new policies and possible changes to immigration law. What is clear, regardless of the position of the Government of the Bahamas, is that migrant persons of Haitian descent are the most vulnerable and there are serious and urgent concerns about the detention center and how the policy is being enforced.
After the representatives of the Bahamian state presented their report, Tracy Robinson, Commissioner and country rapporteur for the Bahamas, specifically called for state response to the following concerns: official efforts to prevent violence against migrants; the granting of due process and interpreters for migrants being detained; issues at the detention center in terms of overcrowding and ill treatment; and access to the detention center for human rights defenders. Noting that “[t]he state has a duty to exercise due diligence to prevent the violence as well, not simply to prosecute it when it happens,” Robinson also raised important questions in relation to the standing of the new policy viz existing immigration law and how the Bahamian state would address concerns raised about violations of rights and citizenship.
In her concluding remarks, IACHR President Rose-Marie Antoine reprised the Commission’s concerns regarding the criminalizing of persons through this new immigration policy and the targeting of persons suspected of being non-nationals. She asked about the use of enforcement and exactly how the policy/law will be implemented and the use of detention for persons who do not have passports on them. The gender dimension of citizenship was also explicitly identified as bearing specifically on ways in which this new immigration policy/law would render persons “stateless” (a child born in the Bahamas with a Bahamian father is automatically granted citizenship, whereas if a Bahamian woman is married to a non-national, their child is not granted citizenship but rather has to “apply” at 18). The state was asked to respond to these issues and allegations in writing and in due course. The official Bahamian response was brief, noting that the overcrowding of the detention center was “situational,” insisting that the Bahamian Government does provide due process for migrants, and indicating that a written report that responded to the other queries would be forthcoming. (The hearing is available on the OAS website: here)
Meanwhile, following the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Tribunal Ruling 168-13 and change of citizenship policy in September 2013, in May 2014, the DR passed Law 169-14 that established “A special set of rules for persons born in the national territory who are irregularly registered in the Dominican Civil Registry, and rules about naturalization.” The regularization plan, originally giving people just 18 months to request Dominican citizenship for children born to undocumented migrants, came to an end in February and was extended for another 90 days (amidst opposition from the right) to 15th June 2015. The government has announced that no more extensions will be granted. When the final deadline is reached, it means that overnight thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent will be rendered without status or the right to stay in the country of their birth. This is widely regarded as a violation of rights to citizenship as birthright is stripped away from people who are most vulnerable (Haitian migrants, Haitian Dominicans, and their children). And with this policy change, the DR will be able to legally deport Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry – which they have already been doing for years – even as they depend on their labor and exploit their limbo/stateless status. The Dominican government has claimed that there would be no mass deportations and the approach will be on a case by case basis; in late May it was reported that the foreign affairs minister of Haiti (Lener Reneaud) met his counterpart from the Dominican Republic (Andrés Navarro), to finalise a “Protocol for deportations” (thanks to Arturo Victoriano for clarification and translation).
All this has happened in spite of CARICOM’s response and civil organizations’ protests and petitions. And the June 15 deadline looms, with barely any notice across the region and internationally (with the exception of the Huffington Post and independent media.
In 2013 and 2014, there was a lot more attention to the issue; several critiqued the ruling and offered context for understanding the tenuous history and relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (for example, see Richard Andre’s interview with Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat in Americas Quarterly, and Myriam Chancy’s powerful reflection published and shared on several sites including CaribVoices, The Haitian Times, and Repeating Islands, among others.). The authors of this article have both written about these issues (including Angelique Nixon’s article titled, “Limbo Citizens or Stateless People?: Human Rights, Migration, and the Future for Dominicans of Haitian Ancestry“, carried on Groundation Grenada’s website, and Alissa Trotz in two columns for the Stabroek Newspaper in Guyana). Following a successful campaign by activists/academics/academic-activists in the region and diaspora, CARICOM denounced the ruling and also delayed the DR’s bid for entry into the regional organization.
As Myriam Chancy argues, the ruling creates and reinforces civic death for Dominicans of Haitian descent as well as Haitian migrants across the region (and for Haitian migrants around the region): “This issue of creating civic death is what we need to most be alarmed about in the face of increasing social and economic inequality, forced migration, and environmental challenges facing the region; we are living in uncertain and dangerous times. And while we don’t want to support or replicate neocolonial paradigms upon each other in the region, we must find ways to hold each other accountable for any violations of human rights; and I would further argue that we must find more ethical ways to deal with migration and rights across the region, especially for our Haitian brothers and sisters” (“Apartheid in the Americas: Are You Haitian?” 24 October 2013). Chancy’s poignant remarks resonate even more clearly in this moment.
The ruling and subsequent enforcement of change in citizenship status have been widely regarded as a political and humanitarian crisis in the DR. And with the recent abuses and mass roundups of Haitians in the Bahamas (a situation that CARICOM seems unable to find a response to, despite being in the country for its 26th Inter-Sessional meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government where an explicit commitment was made to the organization’s ongoing no business as usual policy with the DR), it seems the region is far from finding more ethical ways to deal with migration and citizenship rights. What is striking indeed, is the similarity not only in the rhetoric between the Bahamian and Dominican governments but also in the solutions being proposed.
While there has been some media attention to these issues across the region, and even some international reports, there has been a surprising silence and lack of outrage. Certainly, human rights violations around immigration and detention centers are far from new news. But there are several troubling questions that should prompt our concern, outrage and commitment to change. It is clear that people of Haitian descent continue to be targeted unjustly and overtly in new immigration policies as they are scapegoated as “the problem” underlying social ills in various contexts (as migrant communities so often are). It is also clear that women migrants in detention need serious and dire attention, as more reports of violations at the detention center in the Bahamas have surfaced in the past few months (from the case of the Jamaican woman who filed charges in April to most recently reported in the Tribune on 9th June, another immigration officer was suspended following an accusation and investigation of “inappropriate conduct.”)
With recovery efforts still underway in post earthquake Haiti, this assault on migrants and persons of Haitian ancestry urgently underscores just how much work there is left to do across our Caribbean. It is time to call out anti-Haitian sentiments and xenophobia that underpin much of the migration and citizenship issues in the region. It is time to forge and create responses that are regional in focus and promote solidarity and solutions grounded in social justice. It is time to find better ways of dealing with migration, citizenship, regional movement, and labor. And it is time to develop stronger and intersectional approaches to these issues that take into account class, gender and other differences and inequality.
We must keep visioning a just future – one with dignity and freedom for Haiti and Haitians all over the world, for all migrants who have similar experiences, for the Caribbean and all Caribbean people – in which we come together across our differences to create and build regional solidarity.
Angelique V. Nixon is a writer, artist, teacher, scholar, activist, and poet – born and raised in Nassau, The Bahamas. She is committed to the struggle for gender, racial, and sexual equality and movements for social justice. Angelique earned a Ph.D. in English specializing in Caribbean literature, postcolonial studies, and gender studies at the University of Florida, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Africana Studies at New York University. Her research and teaching areas include Caribbean studies, African diaspora literatures, feminist and postcolonial theories, gender and sexuality studies, and transnational migrations. Her research, cultural criticism, and poetry have been published widely. She works with a number of community-based organizations, including the grassroots healing collective Ayiti Resurrect working in Leogane, Haiti focusing on women’s empowerment, sustainability, education, and health. She is co-chair of the Caribbean IRN, which connects activists, researchers, and artists who do work on diverse genders and sexualities. Angelique is a Fulbright Scholar with the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.
Alissa Trotz is Guyanese and lives in Toronto, where she teaches Caribbean Studies and Women and Gender Studies, at the University of Toronto. She is also Associate Faculty at the Dame Nita Barrow Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the Cave Hill Campus of The University of the West Indies. She has published essays on the gendered politics of neoliberalism, social reproduction and women’s activism; gender, coloniality and violence; women and transnational migration; and the state and the diaspora option in the Caribbean. She edits a weekly newspaper column, In the Diaspora, in the Stabroek News, a Guyanese independent newspaper, and is a member of Red Thread Women’s Organization in Guyana.