During tough periods in Haiti, hundreds of desperate people take to rickety sloops and other vessels and try to sail north to The Bahamas, hoping for a better life.
Some make it to any of the hundreds of islands in the mini archipelago off Florida, others are rescued at sea by exhausted coast guard officers while others simply drown in the 532 miles of turbid waters between the two CARICOM neighbors, one a global tourism paradise, the other perennially embroiled in crime, security, economic and other crises.
Over the decades, The Bahamas has absorbed thousands of Haitians with official estimates placing the Haitian population in The Bahamas at close to 30 percent.
But for the administration of Prime Minister Phillip Davis, his country of just over 300,000 people is facing what he called an “immigration crisis” with additional batches of Haitian boat people making the trek north to The Bahamas.
Last year, Bahamian authorities sent back nearly 5,000 Haitians who authorities say entered various islands illegally even as the coastguard has stepped up patrols to intercept more Haitians, many of them hungry, exhausted and in need of medical attention. The latest high seas interception occurred just last week when the US coastguard handed over 390 Haitians in a rickety vessel as it struggled to reach Bahamian shores.
“The crisis in Haiti is getting worse,” PM Davis told a Latin American leaders meeting in Argentina this week. “The tragic situation there continues to pose a substantial threat not only to Haitians, but also to The Bahamas and neighboring countries, all of whom are experiencing a significant increase in irregular and often dangerous migration.”
Bahamian officials say they are particularly worried about the emergence of a string of shanty towns in various Family Islands in the past decade, sullying the natural aesthetics of the tourism paradise.
The Tribune newspaper quoted Central and South Abaco lawmaker, John Pinder as saying that the shanty towns issue has “reached boiling point.” Similar concerns have been noted in North Andros and Harbor Island as several shanty developments have sprung up, decimating local property values.
“It’s concerning to me because there isn’t any sanitary infrastructure at hand and there isn’t the proper permitting and things are being done that Bahamians, and my fellow Abaconians can’t do,” Pinder said.
A frustrated Immigration Minister Keith Bell this week warned illegal Haitians and other foreigners in The Bahamas to “wind up” their affairs and prepare to leave. PM Davis said he too shares this view noting that Minister Bell “is just reiterating what the law is and that all who are here ought to be able to comply with our laws and we are a country of laws and we ask those who are here to obey the laws.”
Fearing more Haitians will try to leave as gangland violence grips large parts of the capital and related districts, PM Davis says officials will try to stem the crisis even as the main opposition party is keeping up the pressure on the cabinet to act.
The spike in migrating Haitians has not been helped by the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise by suspected Colombian mercenaries, inflation and the virtual collapse of the government.