With More Than 300 Dead, Haitians in The Bahamas Facing Deportations, Homelessness And Discrimination After Hurricane Dorian

GREAT ABACO, BAHAMAS – SEPTEMBER 5: People carry their possessions after Hurricane Dorian passed through in The Mudd area of Marsh Harbour on September 5, 2019 in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas. Hurricane Dorian hit the island chain as a category 5 storm battering them for two days before moving north. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Greig

Thousands of Haitians across The Bahamas are struggling to survive and recover more than three weeks after Hurricane Dorian brought death and destruction to their doorstep.

As one of the strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricanes ever recorded in history, Hurricane Dorian brought an unprecedented amount of damage to The Bahamas on Sept. 1, pounding the island archipelago with nearly 200-mph winds, 30-foot tidal surges and buckets of rain. 

Haitians — many of whom have lived in unregulated shanty towns for generations — were hit hardest by the storm yet have had to face mass deportations and discrimination in the aftermath of the hurricane.

After three weeks of recovery efforts, the latest reports from the Bahamanian government and United States Agency for International Development said  the official death toll is now at 51, with another 1,300 people still deemed missing. 

People on the ground say the situation is far worse for Haitian residents, many of whom live in the devastated Mudd and Pigeon Peas, two vibrant- but shoddy- settlements built up and dominated by Haitian immigrants for decades.

According to government estimates, these neighborhoods had more than 1,000 homes and an estimated population size of about 4,000.

Both The Mudd and Pigeon Peas were stuffed full of flimsy, poorly built-shelters which were completely flattened after withstanding 40 hours of the record-breaking storm. 

Haitians have long had a huge presence in the Bahamas, serving as the backbone of the country’s workforce for decades. Thousands of Haitians work as cooks, gardeners, construction workers and maids at homes and hotels across The Bahamas – an archipelago with more than 700 islands and smaller sand banks called cays.

Despite their significant contributions to the country, Haitians are frequently targeted, harassed  and deported en masse by the government. The situation has only worsened in recent years since the government passed a 2014 law forcing everyone to carry a passport at all times. 

“Haitians have contributed to building the infrastructure of The Bahamas just like they have in the Dominican Republic,” Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement. “They’ve been used and targeted as a political scapegoat in The Bahamas so this is nothing new, but it is sad that after such an overwhelming crisis, that instead of rallying to make sure that everybody’s basic needs are met, that this group once again is targeted, vilified and demonized. This is really sad but we also know that historically, this has been part of the game plan.” 

“Haitians have contributed to building the infrastructure of The Bahamas just like they have in the Dominican Republic,” Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement. “They’ve been used and targeted as a political scapegoat in The Bahamas so this is nothing new, but it is sad that after such an overwhelming crisis, that instead of rallying to make sure that everybody’s basic needs are met, that this group once again is targeted, vilified and demonized. This is really sad but we also know that historically, this has been part of the game plan.” 

In interviews with survivors, family members abroad and relief groups, dozens of people told The Haitian Times that Haitians across The Bahamas were terrified of government shelters because people at the door were asking for papers. Most Haitians were being provided with shelter, food and water by a cohort of Haitian Christian groups and churches of all denominations. 

Churches across The Bahamas are full of Haitians afraid to seek out help from official sources. Dozens of pastors reported that their churches were having problems finding enough beds for all the people who came to  their doors. They were also struggling to address a deluge of mental and physical health issues.

“Haitians are not getting the recognition and help that they really need. They’re being repatriated back to Haiti and a lot of them are being rounded up. They’re not given the same opportunities,” said Marie Hyppolite, chair of international affairs and education at the Haitian American Nurses Association.

Haitians in The Bahamas who spoke to The Haitian Times on condition of anonymity said they feared outright violence from Bahamanians. Shelters providing care for hundreds of Haitians reported threats to burn their buildings down. 

One pastor said he had a group of 20 children who had lost parents in the storm and were now at a loss for where to go or who to turn to.

To make matters worse, Haitians are now terrified to leave shelters for fear that they will be arrested and sent back to Haiti. Even those who are injured and in need of water or food have largely tried to avoid government help. 

Elsworth Johnson, The Bahamas’ Minister of Financial Services, Trade and Industry and Immigration, was openly threatning in an interview with The New York Times, telling the newspaper that anyone undocumented who left shelters was at risk of being arrested and deported. 

He tried to refute reports of deportation roundups, saying he had suspended deportations. But The Bahamas, he said, would not offer any Haitians asylum.

He openly admitted that the suspension of deportations would not last long, saying, “Eventually persons will come out of those shelters, and we know that people are leaving those shelters, and if they’re not properly documented, then we apply the law.”

This population of Haitians is now permanently at risk because the government has said it will not allow anyone to build near The Mudd or Pigeon Peas for at least six months, if not longer. The government has said they plan to build a “tent city” in order to house the thousands of Haitians that are now homeless. But for many Haitians, these offers are falling on deaf ears.

“They’re really looking to get Haitians out. If Haitians are living somewhere, they want them to leave. They’re not rebuilding the shanty towns. It’s really sad what’s going on,” Hyppolite said. 

“Theses people have nowhere to go. They’re out in the elements, they’re in places where there are still dead bodies that haven’t been picked up. So you have unsanitary conditions, and you have future outbreaks that will happen.”

90 Haitian immigrants apprehended in 2015 by Bahamian authorities. Photo Credit: Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald.

As a nurse, the healthcare situation is what concerned Hyppolite the most. Without access to clinics, medicine and assistance, Haitians living in The Bahamas are at greater risk of contracting illnesses and diseases.

This situation would only get worse as more time passed and more people were left homeless and destitute. Hyppolite even said some people were still unsure of whether to come out of hiding for medical help, fearing any registration involving their name would lead to deportation. 

“Healthwise it’s a very volatile situation because at any given point, things can change. Some required medical intervention, bruises, fractures, wounds. But this was two weeks ago. It was fresh, it was a few days. Now we’re seeing more and more people. Those that are even injured are coming out, or not coming out,” Hyppolite told The Haitian Times. 

“It’s a situation where if they come out, they may be deported. They’re bargaining and they don’t know whether to go for help for their situation, for food, for water, for healthcare or they risk the chance of being deported.”

Bastien and her organization have noticed the exact same issues. She joined with dozens of other rights groups across the United States to write a letter asking Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis to suspend deportations and provide adequate care to Haitians currently living in fear.

She called for an official moratorium on all deportations and asked him to allow immigrant families access to hurricane relief efforts without having to provide work permits or documents. 

“Our agency has received several SOS from residents there because they are scared to seek help because of their immigration status. Access to hurricane relief efforts after a natural disaster is a fundamental human right, seeking these services should never lead to detention or deportation,” she said. 

“Fear in the Haitian immigrant communities is at an all-time high and, without intervention, will prevent needy families from accessing vital services, including asking for shelter in public facilities, when needed, and protecting or assisting others.”

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, before boarding Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then on to North Carolina. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) 
Associated Press

United States President Donald Trump tacitly addressed Haitians living in the Bahamas during a press conference last week. Part of the reason why he ordered customs officials to cruely stop Bahamians from coming to the US was because he feared “undocumented people” — like most Haitians in the Bahamas — would abuse the system.

“Everybody needs totally proper documentation because, look, the Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there,” Mr. Trump said Monday. 

“I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members, and some very, very bad drug dealers. So we’re going to be very, very strong on that.”

Bastien said these comments were abhorrent and were part of the reason why The Bahamian government felt so emboldened in denying services and basic human rights to Haitians.

“We strongly condemn the Trump Administration statements that these people are criminals,” Bastien told The Haitian Times.

“They are not criminals. These are hardworking people who have gone through one of the worst natural disasters. People who have suffered so much through a Category 5 hurricane. As a good neighbor, we should be able to extend a welcoming hand, and not criminalizing and demonizing them.”

Unfortunately, Haitians in The Bahamas can only look to the Diaspora for assistance. Haitian Chargé d’Affaires Darlier admitted that Haiti does not currently have a functioning government and parliament is not in session so it doesn’t have a national budget. 

This means there is very little he can do but advocate for resources and help from the Bahamanian government. 

In their place, Bastien and other groups have mobilized Haitian organizations across the world to contribute to the recovery effort. She was in Washington DC last week pushing Democratic and Republican lawmakers to provide assistance and potentially create a TPS-style bill that would allow those affected by the storm to stay in the United States.

Haitian lawmakers in New York, Florida and other states have banded together to provide some support and relief efforts. 

In response to Hurricane Dorian’s devastating impact in the Bahamas, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray and Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams announced a joint initiative on Sept. 23 that would allow employees of the City of New York to directly donate a portion of their paychecks to hurricane relief efforts, as well as collect donations from the general public to support ongoing relief work.

“With the Trump Administration egregiously denying Bahamians Temporary Protected Status after Hurricane Dorian devastated the islands, our city must rise to the moment and provide critical aid,” said Williams. “As a citywide elected official of Caribbean-descent, I’m proud to join First Lady McCray and community organizations to launch this important initiative that will provide New Yorkers with a safe and secure way to donate directly to the groups on the ground providing much-needed relief.”

Among those still unaccounted for is a very large population of undocumented Haitian migrants, he said, adding that his office is working with groups on the ground and local clergy members to help get those individuals the help they need.

The New York State Assembly Haitian Caucus, comprised of Assemblymembers Kimberly Jean-Pierre; Michaelle Solages; Clyde Vanel; Rodneyse Bichotte; and Mathylde Frontus, also joined in on relief efforts with Speaker Carl Heastie.

“The Assembly Majority will continue to work closely with the Consulate General of the Bahamas and the Bahamian American Association to address strategies needed to assist those communities impacted,” the caucus said in a statement. “ Additionally, many Assembly Majority members’ offices will host relief drives across New York to help Bahamians affected by Hurricane Dorian.”

As for Hyppolite, her organization is planning more assessment trips to The Bahamas in order to figure out the best ways to help people there. Everyone needs to pitch in to help Haitians in The Bahamas, she told The Haitian Times. 

“Long term, we need assistance from the medical community, engineers and lawyers coming to advocate for them,” Hyppolite said.

“Long term recovery on the island is going require outsized assistance from Haitians across the world to help our Haitian brothers and sisters down there in The Bahamas.”

Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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