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Haitians in the Bahamas

By Stephen WebbeStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 1980

New Providence, Bahamas

When Bahamians proudly intone their national anthem, "March On, Bahamaland," they have no intention of marching "on the glory . . . banners waving high" with the thousands of illiterate and impoverished Haitian immigrants who share these islands with them.

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Illegal Haitian immigration has bedeviled the Bahamas both as a British colony and as an independent nation. No one is certain how many Haitians are eking out a living here. The government contends that there are more than 30, 000, but Haitian sources put the figure at between 10,000 and 15,000.

One thing is clear: The problem has defied solution since 1957, when peasants from Haiti's Northwest Department began slipping into New Providence and Grand Bahama aboard dangerously unseaworthy and overccrowded sloops.

Unresolved, the influx could lead to communal violence, observers here feel -- a violence that could damage the lucrative Bahamian tourist industry, which employs two-thirds of the country's labor force and generates some 60 percent of its revenues and foreign earnings.

"The potential is there for violence if firm action is not taken," says Lester Turnquest, deputy permanent secretary to the minister of labor and home affairs.

Why the Haitians risk the often long and perilous voyage to the Bahamas is simple: Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, among the 25 poorest in the world, placing it in what economists refer to as the "fourth world." Its limited amount of arable land has been grievously over- worked in order to feed a burgeoning population. Fathers have traditionally divided land among their sons; consequently families have had to make do on smaller and smaller plots, which are never irrigated or treated with fertilizers and are often devastated by soil erosion.

"The peasant's farm is small, its soil exhausted, its product limited and the standard of living it can support is low," writes Dawn Marshall in her book, "The Haitian Problem: Illegal Migration to the Bahamas." She adds that the peasant's diet "is poor, monotonous, and conducive to malnutrition." While he may not starve, she observes, "it is more than likely he will die of one of the diseases that accompanies malnutrition."

Haitian President for Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, who is said to have only a slightly lighter touch than his notoriously brutal father, "Papa Doc," is evidently unconcerned about the exodus from his shores. Duvalier, who reputedly still rules with the aid of the dreaded secret police nicknamed Tontons Macoutes (bogyman in Creole), seems to take more interest in those returned to Haiti after aborted escape attempts. The New York-based National council of Churches recently complained to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, citing clear evidence of Haitian returnees who were arrested, tortured, and beaten -- or who simply disappeared.

Indeed, a team sent by the US State Department to Haiti to assess the treatment meted out to those returned from the United States was only able to discover 86 out of 600 returned Haitians. Many Haitians arriving in the Bahamas intend eventually to sail on to the US. A few, having made some money, even plan to go back to HAiti, but they often leave again when they discover that its struggling economy cannot satisfy their newfound aspirations.

Haitians began arriving in Florida in 1972, and there are now an estimated 26 ,000 there. Although there are no federal resettlement and job programs for Haitians, as there are for Cubans, the administration recently made them eligible for food stamps and temporary work permits. Prior to mid-April, when they fell under the jurisdiction of the Refugee Act of 1980, illegal Haitian immigrants remained a largely invisible problem in the US.

The typical illegal immigrant to the Bahamas is an illiterate man under 30 lured by tales of job opportunities in Nassau and Freeport. The bulk arrive with what can only be termed 18th-century agrarian skills.

If an illegal immigrant decides to try his hand in Nassau he might board a sloop in Port-de-Paix and after a journey of between three days and four weeks find himself wading ashore on New Providence's marshy southern coast, his belongings in a bundle, to be driven to the island's Carmichael Road district by waiting Haitians. Although Haitian immigrants are to be found all over the island, they tend to congregate in the bush near this main road, where they live in scores of shacks lacking lighting and sanitation.