It's Not Better in Bahamas For Asylum Seekers

'It's better in the Bahamas," proclaims a well-crafted advertisement. However, on this occasion the phrase was not beaming off a billboard with images of serenity and relaxation, but emblazoned on the T-shirt of a young Haitian boy leaning against a chain-link fence surrounding an immigration detention center.

The irony of this scene captures the problematic Bahamian policy of incarcerating unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers.

The dilemma confronting the Bahamian government is new. After committing itself to international refugee treaties in 1993, the Bahamas established a temporary detention facility. A continuing influx of Cubans and Haitians has created a chronic situation of abuse. A recent visit to the Carmichael Road detention center in Nassau revealed that the Bahamian government is not living up to its commitments to respect the human dignity of the detainees.

When the Bahamas became a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol, it agreed to respect a wide variety of civil, political, economic, and social rights concerning refugees, including the right to fairness in status determination. The preliminary steps taken by the Bahamian authorities to realize these precepts must be improved to meet minimum international standards. This includes appropriate training programs and ongoing collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Carmichael Road detention center has become an unexpected and squalid way station for many would-be asylum seekers. The length of stay for many detainees is about three months; one of the detainees we spoke to had been at the facility for more than five months. According to the reports we received, the conditions at the Carmichael Road center are abysmal. The facility is badly overcrowded and sanitation and health facilities are insufficient. There are, for example, only two showers and eight toilets for the more than 200 Cubans. The quality of the food is poor, frequently infested with maggots. There are no books or newspapers, and no organized recreational activities. No incoming or outgoing telephone calls by the camp inhabitants are allowed. Detainees report mental strain, mentioning excruciating boredom and high anxiety caused by a very uncertain future.

The conditions at the detention center should be improved immediately. Standards derived from international human rights principles, including the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, should be promulgated and the custodial authorities should be given training on the standards. We have offered to facilitate a process in cooperation with the authorities to promulgate such standards and organize training.

Moreover, consideration should be given to a humanitarian release program. Detained pregnant women and their immediate families should be considered for release. We were told that Cubans living in the Bahamas would host these vulnerable individuals pending the determination of their status.

The primary responsibility for the conduct of a humane refugee and migration policy rests with the Bahamas. However, there is a clear regional dimension to this situation which requires a regional approach. There is no doubt, for example, that the implementation of refugee and migration policy in the Bahamas can be seen in the broader context of efforts by the United States to manage migration. For example, US Coast Guard vessels regularly interdict Cubans and Haitians in Bahamian territorial waters. This involvement should carry with it a corresponding measure of responsibility to ensure humane treatment in the Bahamian camp, financially or by any other appropriate means.

Then things would really be better in the Bahamas.

* Arthur C. Helton is the director of the Forced Migration Projects of the Open Society Institute in New York. He visited the Bahamas in April.

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