Haitians in the Bahamas

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Joseph Noel has lived here over since he arrived as a 14-year-old with his parents in 1951. He is wearing a pair of tattered trousers sawed off above the knee. The strain of wresting a living from the rocky soil for his Bahamian wife , Cofi, and their family is etched in his prematurely aged face.

A wiry, agile man, habitually barefoot, Joseph Noel displays his young banana trees, growing surprisingly well, it seems, despite the negligible soil allocated them. He is particularly pleased with his pumpkins, green and plump amid all the trash that litters the site. Although he says he keeps chickens and goats, only the chickens appear to be in evidence. Summoning them with a shrill call, he proceeds to dispense Quaker Quick golden Grits to the hungary hens and their chicks.

Mr. Noel has precious little to show for the 29 years he has been in the Bahamas. He is extremely proud of the eight-room wooden shack he and his family live in, and even prouder of a smaller one he is building 100 yards away.

But they are little more than hovels: The kitchen ceiling of the larger one is blackened from an open fire on the dirt floor where the cooking is done. A large chunk of cardboard marked "Lumberton Mfg. Co., Lumberton, Miss." is stuck in the rafters, presumably to help keep the rain out. Clouds of flies are everywhere.

The arrival of foreign guests, Mr. Noel declares in his fragmentary English, requires refreshments, and he springs up a palm tree to gather some green coconuts. He hacks holes in their outer shells with a machete and passes them around. The liquid is bland but cooling. When thirsts have been slaked, he splits the coconuts open and we scrape out the jellied meat.

He then introduces us to some neighbors. The home belonging to a young couple with two small boys is even more pitiful than his. Little more than a large packing crate, it is bisected by flimsy curtain. In the rear is a large iron bedstead with a blue cloth draped over it. A tin bath and a row of faded clothes hang from the wall. In the front there is a grubby baby crib with a Snoopy pillow and on a table, a saucepan, enamel mug, and oil lamp. The only visible food is a half-eaten plate of rice, crawling with flies.

In another shack, one young woman, Danielle Evelyn, holding her 4 1/2 -month-old son, Jimmy (and obviously pregnant again), declares: "When i get something, I eat." She says there is no food in the house and "sometimes the baby don't have any milk."

It seems that only two Haitians out of the ones who live in the half dozen nearby shacks have any work. They are picking tomatoes in a nearby field for a Bahamian farmer, who pays them $50 each a week.

"It's sometimes easy to find jobs," says Jean-Mary wilfort, a young Haitian mechanic. "Sometimes it takes a long time."

When Haitians here do find work, invariably of a menial character such as weeding or fruit and vegetable picking, they send a substantial proportion of their earnings to relatives in their homeland. According to the Rev. James Smith, an American evangelical missionary working among the Haitians of Carmichael Road, they are ten times better off in the Bahamas.

But as Mrs. Marshall, a Bahamian sociologist, notes in her book, "There is a constant and hostile competition between Haitians and Bahamians for the lower income jobs." The acrimony caused by this rivalry, coupled with the continued influx of Haitians, she adds, "are the ingredients of an explosive situation." The rev. Mr. Smith, or "Pastor Jacques," as he is known to the Haitians, agrees with her.

"There is a very definite potential for violence here," he says. "If the Haitians were to rise up and assert their rights, that would create a real serious situation."

In fact, it is the Haitian community's absence of rights in the Bahamas that could lead to communal strife, many here feel. Only those having a legal right to reside in the country are eligible for citizenship, and as virtually all Haitians are here illegally, they can neither become citizens nor vote.

Moreover, the right to citizenship is denied children born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents. Indeed, all those Haitians not holding work permits are liable to deportation -- even men like Joseph Noel who have been here since childhood.

The government of the Bahamas has been periodically deporting Haitians for 23 years, but as Mrs. Marshall claims, their numbers have climbed from 1,000 in 1957 to some 40,000 today -- or a sizable 17 percent of the islands' population, somewhat higher than government estimates. The Bahamian government is unable to intercept more illegal Haitians than it does because of the vast sweep of the island chain and the small number of patrol vessels and aircraft at its disposal.

Moreover, as Mrs. Marshall points out, the illegal immigrant "does not see himself as the criminal which the immigration laws of the receiving country make him out to be." She says that by migrating illegally a Haitian risks capture, imprisonment, and deportation, and his friends may make fun of him when he returns. "But neither by them nor by himself is he seen as a criminal," asserts the sociologist.

The Rev. Mr. Smith says Haitians feel intimidated by the Bahamians, reserving a "real resentment" for those who treat them as "less than human." That many Bahamians see the Haitians in their midst as serfs is obvious to many who visit these islands.

"We want them to make a living as long as they stay in the farming bracket," says a Bahamian fruit vendor. "If they take a Bahamian job they're looking for trouble." The man, who says he occasionally employs Haitians on his small plot of land, feels that the government should assign Haitians to farms and that there should be a Haitian ombudsman to arbitrate in disputes.

If illegal immigration continues unchecked, "it could be very dangerous," he says. "I don't think they would want to stay in the farming bracket all the time. It could be very dangerous if they don't decide to do the right thing."

The fruit vendor, who declares "the same God who made the Haitians made me," asserts that Bahamians are a peace- loving people but they could easily become violent if upset by the newcomers. Deportation, he adds, has not only been a failure but a waste of money to boot.

Another Bahamian, an educated man with a good job who requested anonymity, claims the Haitians are migrating to the Bahamas simply because they have nowhere to sell their produce at home. He maintains that each peasant has a "huge piece of land" which more than adequately supplies his need. Misperceptions such as this are typical here and do nothing to clarify a longstanding and complex problem which the average Bahamian likes to pretend does not exist.

"We should curb the influx," he continues, conceding that it has so far proved impossible to do so, given the scattered nature of the Bahamian islands and a "miniature defense force." He says he employs a 22-year-old Haitian handyman called Joseph with whom communication is limited to the Creole "ba"for "good" and "pas bon" for bad.

Some Haitians are "so primitive," he exclaims, relating how a middle-aged man on first seeing a car in Nassau climbed in through the open window when accepting a ride. "He just wasn't accustomed to the door," he says.

"We love the Haitians," he goes on, "but we don't like the way they come in here. They're bigots. They should adhere to our rules and regulations. The Haitians come in and break every law in the book and plead ignorance." He claims that of 100 patients in a Bahamian hospital, 90 will be Haitian. "They have all types of disease."

The well-to-do Bahamian goes on to say that "if the Haitian government would step up communication with out government, I think something could be done."

The Haitian consul general here, Alexander Paul, an urbane, nattily suited diplomat, contends that a 1972 agreement signed between Nassau and Port-au-Prince would solve the whole problem if adhered to by the Bahamian government. The agreement would have admitted a controlled number of Haitian to enter the Bahamas to work chiefly on farms for a specified length of time.

"It would have opened up free travel and eliminated the need to come in illegally," Mr. Paul asserts. Haitian sources here feel that the agreement has never been carried out for a mixture of political and racial reasons.

Herbert Walkine, the permanent secretary to the minister of labor and home affairs, concedes the agreement was never observed, but doubts that it would have solved the problem in its entirety.

"If enforced, it would allow only a certain number of workers in -- not the thousands coming here all the time." But the agreement is bein reviewed by the Bahamian government.

"It is exercising our minds," says Mr. Walkine.

Adds Clement Maynard, the labor and home affairs minister, "We hope sometime in the future to properly implement it."

Mr. Walkine discloses that the government "is thinking of taking some very firm steps in coping with this problem." Declining to reveal what measures are being contemplated, he merely asserts that they will be announced shortly.

According to the Haitian consul general, the Bahamas now intends to send back 1,000 Haitians a month, a figure Mr. Walkine does not dispute. "We would certainly wish to send out that many," he says, but points out that the Bahamas receives little cooperation from the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier when returning illegal immigrants. Haitians have to be processed and issued visas before being sent home, a situation Clement Maynard recently criticized as "ridiculous."

When asked for their frank opinion, Haitian officials here insist that the Bahamian government holds a racist attitude toward the illegal immigrants. They say the Bahamians view the Haitians as a slave class and suggest that Britain's former colonial subjects have simply acquired the sense of superiority their masters once displayed here. "If they [the Bahamas government] want to depart from the racist attitude, there would be no problem at all" says one official.

"Violence is bound to happen," says Mr. Paul, who devotes every Thursday to helping his countrymen with all manner of problems -- family, marital, and monetary.

Recently a number of Haitians and Bahamians clashed in an ugly encounter near Carmichael Road, and some weeks ago the words "no Haitians Allowed" appeared on a wall at the entrance to black Village, a section of Nassau. At night, says the Rev. Mr. Smith, Haitians go out in pairs to minimize the risk of attack.

When a Haitian sloop docked here last April, a woman who brought water to its drooping passengers was prevented from distributing it. Another woman in the crowd of onlookers that soon gathered yelled: "They should blow them up. I don't really have anything against them, but if they keep on doing this there is going to be a war. They should put a full stop on them, because they ain't going to stop."

But putting a "full stop" to the Haitian exodus to these islands has proved infinitely harder than anyone had imagined. "There will always be Haitians here and it's always going to be a problem," says the Rev. Mr. Smith.

Although he, too, fears violence, he believes the illegal-immigrant problem is "a necessary evil for the Bahamas, not just Haiti. The Bahamas needs Haitian workmen in order to maintain its livelihood and social situation. To eliminate them would raise the cost of living in the Bahamas."

Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling does not appear to take the same view. He has termed the Haitian influx "an obstacle in the path of our economic development," asserting that "we are faced with the problem of depriving our nationals of basic health, education, and social services in order to accomodate these illegal immigrants."

The debate as to who is right is expected to be long and acrimonious. In the meantime, Joseph Noel will be anxiously watching his banana trees, and other Haitians -- desperate to escape the abject poverty of thier homeland -- will be scrambling ashore here at night. Some will almost certainly disappear in stomrs and run aground on reefs, never to be heard of again.

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