The polemic over the Haitian presence, in the Bahamas, is an 80-year-old ongoing, unsettled debate. For Haiti, its economic and social fortunes began on a perilous journey ever since the Haitian Revolution (14 Aug 1791 – 1 Jan 1804) and the days of incredible Haitian revolutionaries: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henry Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
Haiti’s rocky economic path, almost since the year 1800, began with an enforced slavery reparation payment to France which depleted its gold reserves. This was quickly followed by an early procession of endless petit revolutions, significant dictators, military takeovers, foreign occupation, national violence and crushing poverty. All of it combined with the occasional catastrophic natural disaster, have sent black Haitian nationals fleeing to just about every country in the Caribbean, as well as Central America, South America, North America, Canada, France and the Bahamas.
With an unfathomable number who have fled their homeland, over the past two hundred years or so, it is easy to forget that Haiti is a geographically important mineral rich country, with a thriving middle and wealthy class. Haiti, sits pridefully, as a stunningly beautiful, vastly resourced nation. But for its economic and social problems, it would be the envy of the world.
The debate over Haitian illegal migration across international borders, has been tabled by many law makers, in a number of countries, including the United States and Dominican Republic over the decades.
For the Bahamas, like in other countries, Haitians filled critical labour vacuums in the islands during its progression into a top tourist destination. Labour vacuums in the Bahamas, presented themselves in waves and troughs – largely aligned with foreign investment pushing the country into upward cycles of economic expansion. However, in periods of economic contraction, slowdowns and stalls, tensions sometimes arose between Bahamians and Haitians, especially in blue collar labour employment areas. The fight to secure a livelihood, often resulted in calls for reviews of immigration laws.
With more access to tertiary education, more access to higher level jobs and a Bahamianization employment quota being enforced, a Bahamian middle class began to emerge in the 1970s. This opened up employment opportunities for newly landed Haitian nationals in domestic and blue collar work once largely the domain of Bahamians. Haitians landing illegally, and legally, began to quickly fill the labour vacuum created as Bahamians began to move up the economic ladder. The 1970s and 1980s not only allowed Bahamians to move up the economic ladder, but also every other Caribbean nationality, in the Bahamas, advanced at that time as well.
Problems arose however when waves of illegal immigrants continued unabated. As more were moved up the economic ladder, more and more came, illegally. Tensions continued to rise. Many years of continued illegal migration had wearied the sympathies of receiving countries.
Nevertheless, what remains undisputed is that countless jobs, both domestic and industrial, blue collar and white collar jobs, contributing to the overall economic success of the Bahamas, simply would have been that more difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish without the labour of Haitian migrants.
NUMBERS PROVED STAGGERING AS TIME WENT ON
As early as 1959, the influx of illegal nationals began to attract international attention as the number of deportations began to make headlines. By 1962, with an estimated 10,000 illegal nationals in the Bahamas, the topic was heatedly debated in the House of Assembly. By June 1967, just a few months after the historic change in the composition of the Bahamian government, from a white minority government to a majority rule government, the numbers of Haitians nationals were estimated to be between 20,000 to 30,000.
(Tallahassee Democrat Sunday 26 December 1982)
1959 – 3,000 Haitian Nationals In Bahamas Illegally
By 1959, it was estimated that some 3,000 Haitian nationals had already entered the Bahamas illegally.
(The Tampa Times, Wednesday 07 October, 1959)
1962 – 15,000 HAITIANS IN BAHAMAS SAYS H. STUART HALL, CHIEF IMMIGRATION OFFICER
(The Corpus Christie Times, Sunday, 14 October 1962)
1967 – Bahamian Senator Dr. Doris Johnson Tells Assembly There May Be 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians in Bahamas
(The Austin-American, Saturday 17 June 1967)
1981 – HAITI INVALIDATES TRAVEL DOCUMENTS AND VISAS FROM BAHAMAS WHICH BLOCKS 775 HAITIANS WHO VOLUNTARILY WANT TO GO HOME
The Haitian government has blocked a continuing effort by the Bahamas to deport hundreds of Haitian refugees back to the homeland by suspending the validity of all travel documents and visas from the Bahamas.
Haitian President Jean Claude Duvalier apparently acted in anger at raids this month by Bahamas police in which an undisclosed number of illegal Haitian immigrants were imprisoned at Fox Hill prison near Nassau.
Government sources viewed the Haitian action as a move to block repatriations of 575 patients who have agreed to return home.
Of the 775 illegal Haitian immigrants who have volunteered for repatriation during the so-called 90 day amnesty period ending January 18, only 200 have been sent home.
1982 – HAITIAN VILLAGE OF 40 SHACKS IN NEW PROVIDENCE CALLED “Boi-pin”
FARM OF EDISON KEY, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT IN ABACO ATTRACTS SOME 800 HAITIANS PLANTERS AND PICKERS EVERY YEAR
New Providence, The Bahamas—
Few babies in the Haitian populated village of Boi-pin have ever seen an American. Some stare wide eyed at first view. The less bold scramble off bawling towards their mother’s ankles.
For their parents, the distant city of Miami similarly is a two headed mystery. On idle afternoons when there is no work food or money it offers the stuff of classic immigrant dreams.
These days, the villages transient population rises and falls with the seasons. But the 40 shacks fashioned from scraps of tin and stray lumber that make up the largest Haitian settlement on New Providence are usually occupied.
For one thing, life in the Bahamas is comfortably similar to life in Haiti. For another, the Haitians fleeing to Florida between 1979 and 1981 responded as much to pressure from the Bahamas to leave as to the attraction in the United States to come.
But in the past year, mass arrests and deportations that chased Haitians from the islands have stopped, replaced by a strict work permit system that keeps Haitians from disrupting the islands’ labour market.
“I don’t got the money to make it to my Miami,” explained Henry Seinvil, 47, who has lived outside Nassau for two decades. If God gives me peas and bread, I live. “You live as best you can. But I cannot go.”
So within villages, Haitians aid and protect each other. They share food, take in less fortunate friends, and create what comforts they can. One Boi-pin resident manages to tune a blurry picture on a used television set hooked to a battery for power.
The worn, dirt path’s between shacks are swept clean and polkadotted by bottle caps ground by their heels into the Earth.
“Yet, the Haitian community supplies the Bahamas something that country cannot do without: inexpensive, willing workers.
Perhaps the best example of the countries labour system is found in the northernmost island of Abaco, where newly elected member of Parliament Edison Key and a partner set up the country’s largest farm.
Each fall, nearly 800 Haitians migrate to a crowded camp just west of Treasury Cay.
Men make $1.20 and women make $1 an hour planting and harvesting 400,000 bushels of cucumbers, most for shipment to the United States.
Unlike elsewhere in the Bahamas, Haitians easily can obtain work permits for the farm. Some say Key’s government connections help skip the months of waiting usually needed for application approvals.
Conditions at the camp are basic. Most of the Haitians live in dilapidated shacks, separated by a labyrinth like path ways.
The grounds turn mushy with mud and roofs leak during heavy rains.
Workers say infant deaths are common.“