The Haitian community in the Bahamas was hardest hit by Hurricane Dorian. Now anti-Haitianism threatens to hit harder.

The Haitian community in the Bahamas was hardest hit by Hurricane Dorian. Now anti-Haitianism threatens to hit harder.
6th October 2019 Antony Stewart
Haiti Debate at the University of Liverpool: Colonialism, Occupation and the United Nations
Haiti Support Group: Oxfam works with ‘culture of impunity’

A disaster hits and chaos ensues. Within the shock and the trauma, as the winds settle and people uncurl, look up and look around, chaos breeds and stirs. It nestles into corners of crumbled houses that once were homes – now only layers of wood, breeze blocks and tin. A boat crushes a tree. A single shoe, a fridge door, and a cement staircase to nowhere are all tangled in the rubble and leaves. With disbelief and awe at the force of nature, people group in tears and gut-wrenching sorrow. Soon, helicopters will fly overhead. Trucks will come with drinking water and food. Planes will take families to safety. This is not Haiti, after all, and help will arrive.

Right?

Hurricane Dorian’s death toll is officially 60 – but it will go higher. Hundreds are still missing. Thousands more have lost everything. The agony of Dorian is centred on the neighbourhoods of The Mudd, Sand Banks and Pigeon Peas; greatly impoverished areas on Great Abaco, the low-lying Bahamian island upon which Dorian stalled and unleashed its cruel power. However, many Haitian survivors of the hurricane fear worse is still to come.[1]

That might seem remarkable considering the scale of the destruction. The Mudd, a large shantytown in Marsh Harbor that minimally housed a huge number of Haitians, was hit hard.

“From the air, it looks like it was put into a blender and spit out. From the ground, it’s even worse.”[2]

When faced with impending danger, not everybody easily packs up and leaves. We saw this in the days prior to Hurricane Matthew’s landfall in Haiti in 2016. Yet, as the rubble remains, a new danger develops from the dirt and the as-yet-unretrieved corpses that decompose still. Ten days after Dorian left the Bahamas, 1,300 people were still counted as missing.[3] More could be unaccounted for – not everybody in Grand Abaco is there by the letter of the law…

In those immediate days after Dorian, governments the world over pledged assistance but Haitian-born residents in Great Abaco, Nassau and Grand Bahama looked on distant, or else retreated back into the shadows of broken buildings – stigmatised and fearful, legal and illegal. For they have the added difficulty of being Haitian amidst a Bahamian crisis, as a fresh wave of xenophobia floods the streams of social media. Unstoppable rumours rush through the channels of vitriolic panicked speech.

“Haitians are looting. They should be rounded up and shot in the head.”[4]

It’s on the street too.

In Nassau, a passer-by shouted into the camera as France24 interviewed a Haitian-born survivor and former resident of Marsh Harbor.

“The people of that country have no God!…The Haitians are taking up all the room in the shelters! They are useless!”[5]

The Roots of Anti-Haitianism

There has been a significant Haitian population in the Bahamas and the neighbouring Turks and Caicos Islands for decades. Following centuries of trade and movement between the nations, it was in the 1950s, when a Bahamian economic boom coincided with Francois Duvalier’s terror, that the Haitian immigration into the Bahamas spiked.[6] They concentrated in pockets across the archipelago – mostly in Abaco, Grand Bahama and Nassau – separated from Bahamian communities by huge wealth disparities and the language barrier between English and Kreyol.

Prejudice and stigma soon bubbled. Haitians worked in low-skilled jobs, such as in private households and the burgeoning tourist industry. Such toil soon became known as “Haitian work,” and the Bahamian economy grew reliant on Haitian labour.[7] Yet, by the 1970s, Haitian presence in the Bahamas became known by many as “the Haitian Problem” and, unsurprisingly, the prejudice took a particularly anti-Vodou bent, reflecting the centuries-long vilification of Vodou across the region that has unfortunately made the religion a fertile vehicle for anti-Haitianism.[8]

The situation of undocumented Haitians is therefore especially fraught in Dorian’s wake. The Bahamian government is making assurances to the Haitian population that they can seek emergency assistance with no legal repercussions; deportations are halted. However, many Haitians who have for years lived in fear of deportation (if not for their entire lives) are understandably wary of such claims and are hesitant to seek out help. There is no birthright citizenship in the Bahamas; those born to parents without legal status are not considered Bahamian under current law and are especially vulnerable.

Although Haitians have access to shelters such as those in Nassau, their movements are extremely limited, for they are told that they cannot leave the shelter without documentation. Within the shelter’s difficult confines, discrimination is rife. Legal residents, with shattered homes, may not have been able to preserve the vital documents that prove their status.

In Limbo

This dangerous limbo within which many survivors find themselves is extremely worrying from a human rights perspective. With prospects of deportation bubbling beneath the chaos, and the brutal reality of the washed away structures and homes of so many Haitian people, the near future looks grim. Help from the US was forthcoming, but quickly denied. The US had originally agreed to accept Dorian’s displaced victims, allowing people to disembark without documentation. On 9th September, acting chief of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan stated:

“This is a humanitarian mission…if your life is in jeopardy and you’re in the Bahamas…you’re going to be allowed to come to the United States, whether you have travel documents or not.”[9]

However, on the very same day, President Trump quickly corrected such liberal sentiment as erroneous.

“The Bahamas has some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there. I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come to the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.”[10]

We know who he means by that. For the President, any moral humanitarian obligation to provide safe conditions to those seeking refuge is superceded by his prejudice against Haitians who, in his eyes, do not meet the requisite whiteness to be deserving of safety.

There is no safe harbour. On Wednesday, the Bahamian PM Dr. Hubert Minnis confirmed the fears of the Bahamian-Haitian community, declaring his intent to strongly enforce immigration laws following Dorian. Minnis is clearly using Dorian as a carte-blanche to reinvigour anti-Haitian policies. Haitians in the Bahamas have responded by forming the United Haitian Community Front. Their spokesperson, Louby Georges, told Buzzfeed:

“[The Government] has always wanted to do it, but there’s never been any legal avenues. There is currently a court injunction stopping the government from demolishing the shanty towns and then this storm came and it’s a gift for them and, based on their actions, that’s how they’re treating it.”[11]

An Uncertain Fate

Fabiola Bernard is a 27 year old undocumented Haitian-born resident of Marsh Harbor, Abaco.[12] She survived the hurricane by hiding in her employer’s garage, which held off the storm, but the main house did not. She had been living a hidden existence in fear of deportation, but is now receiving basic aid (food and water) delivered into her now-destroyed neighbourhood.

Bernard, however, intends to stay hidden and not to access any relief that would see her moving to a different area. She has salvaged nothing from the storm, and feels extremely uncertain about her future, yet she intends to stay in the Bahamas rather than try and return to Haiti, where she fears her fate would be even worse.

Bernard confirmed to us that many Haitian residents of The Mudd and elsewhere, with no English proficiency, could not access the warnings from the Bahamian media, and consequently took few precautions. Haitian residents of the Bahamas were subsequently hardest hit by Hurricane Dorian.

In the coming weeks, it is critical that we monitor and challenge the stark social inequality and anti-Haitianism that exists in the Bahamas, that has permeated the emergency rescue and aid efforts, and threatens the longer-term hopes to rebuild lives, homes and communities. For Haitians with legal residential status or otherwise, there are currently no guarantees that things are going to get better before they get worse.

Written by HSG Executive Fiona de Hoog Cuis.

*
Notes

[1] We’re using “Haitian” to describe both those born in Haiti and those born in the Bahamas of Haitian ancestry, because that is how the community describes themselves.

[2] Johnathan Petramala, https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/no-mudd-mudd-gone-haitian-migrants-suffer-doubly-amid-dorian-devastation-in-bahamas/530499

[3] https://abcnews.go.com/US/1300-registered-unaccounted-bahamas-aftermath-hurricane-dorian/story?id=65562278&cid=clicksource_4380645_null_headlines_hed&fbclid=IwAR0dkAj0XEVje1C8Y7P5pSdx0dPXaZr62DW1Ck2F1wlNottqUDo9KDZSHfs

[4] https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article234859067.html

[5] https://www.france24.com/en/20190910-haitians-in-hurricane-devastated-bahamas-face-uncertain-future

[6] William J. Fielding , Virginia Ballance, Carol Scriven, Thaddeus McDonald & Pandora Johnson ‘The Stigma of Being “Haitian” in The Bahamas’

[7] Ibid.

[8] Marshall, D. I. (1979). “‘The Haitian problem’: Illegal migration to the Bahamas.” Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/09/trump-contradicts-cbp-head-bahamian-refugees-argues-they-might-have-been-infiltrated-by-very-bad-people/?noredirect=on

[10] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/trump-bahamas-typhoon-evacuees-190910014156441.html

[11] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/briannasacks/haitian-immigrants-the-bahamas-dorian

[12] Name changed

*Cover image taken by somebody who does not wish to be named. Permission has been granted to use it.

1 Comment

  1. Lois Wilcken 2 months ago

    Thank you! This aspect of the Dorian story is nowhere in the press. I would love to see follow-up and to know if any groups at all are organizing help.

    As a kind of aside, I have to commend you for spelling Vodou the correct way. I am with an organization that has been campaigning the media to change their style sheets. The Library of Congress has responded to us, changing their subject heading from “voodooism” to Vodou. I’ll let the Board know that you are on the right side.

    Again, thank you.

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