Even as we welcomed the news emanating from the Heads of Government Meeting held in Montego Bay, Jamaica two weeks ago, that there will be some ease in relation to the movement of Haitians in the Commonwealth Caribbean, we are yet again reminded of the poverty and oppressive policies that can undermine even the best of intentions.
For most of that same week, Haiti was struck with the potential of a major confrontation between the State and sections of the country’s more materially dispossessed and poverty-stricken. The protest and violence that occasioned the announced sharp increase in gas prices are symptomatic of the persistent crisis of governance, leadership, and what appears to be a permanent precarious economic situation that will continue to trigger new large outflows into neighbouring countries.
Added to this crisis of governance, and an unflattering political economy is the contradiction of an international community that sometimes shows great sympathy and support for Haiti yet whose state policies are often at odds with the kind of support forthcoming after natural disasters there. So while millions and millions of dollars flowed into Haiti following the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, “Trumpism” and an ultra-nationalist stance from the government of the Dominican Republic have resulted in the unmaking of a tenuous lifeline for so many Haitians.
In the Dominican Republic, the decision to rescind citizenship of thousands of persons born of undocumented Haitian migrants was a major blow to Haitian migrants. Added to that is the intolerance of the government of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas to the significantly large Haitian community particularly in the smaller islands. Both of these ultra-nationalist approaches closed important doors of escape to many a poor Haitian desperately seeking reprieve from the unrelenting cycle of poverty. In both countries, Haitians remain marginal, constituting a small minority enclave that is generally subjected to tremendous economic and legal discrimination. As non-citizens in the Bahamas for example, they remain vulnerable to the threat of arrest and deportation and are at best minimally stigmatized.
As reported by Kristy L Benton, a former government official noted the difficulty of Haitians in the Bahamas.
“The social reality is that we (Bahamians) have a very large number of persons in this society of Haitian extraction who have a very dubious status in The Bahamas; neither fish nor fowl. They don’t qualify for Bahamian citizenship constitutionally and conversely, there are issues as to whether they have retained Haitian citizenship.”
A 2015 immigration policy led to aggressive anti-Haitian tactics employed by the security and immigration officials which included the indiscriminate roundups and roadblocks; the requirement that residents carry ID at all times; the indefinite detention without bail and in the absence of criminal charges; and deportation without conviction or being served with a valid deportation order. So it comes as no surprise that The Bahamas, which really operates on the fringes of CARICOM at best, have now redoubled its efforts to ensure that Haitians fleeing from this new round of violence do not end up on the shores of The Bahamas. Prime minister Hubert Minnis warned Bahamians not to hire illegal immigrants as the Immigration Department was instructed to arrest and prosecute employers who engage undocumented migrant workers. A far cry from the welcoming note struck at the last Heads of Government meeting held in Jamaica.
As for “Trumpism”, we already know that poverty in Haiti is partially alleviated by the influx of remittances from Haitians who have emigrated, primarily to the United States and Canada. It is estimated that roughly 30 percent of all households and 44 per cent of metropolitan households receive remittances from friends or family members working abroad, with such remittances accounting for about 30 percent of household income. In 2008, it was estimated that private-sector transfers, primarily remittances, amounted to $1.25 billion which was equivalent to 19 per cent of Haiti’s GDP and 2.5 times the country’s exports.
Many Haitians who contribute to their homeland through remittances were granted temporary protection status in the United States. Under such status, the US Department of Homeland Security designates a country as too dangerous to receive returning immigrants due to natural disaster, violent conflict or other temporary conditions and can be renewed in six, 12 or 18-month increments, or as many times as necessary until conditions improve. With Trump’s unprecedented decision to halt the programme, (announced January 8, 2018), it means that many of these individuals are vulnerable to be picked up in raids by the relevant US departments, particularly the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In a 2015 report on Haiti, the World Bank (WB) noted that the fundamental problem in is the lack of a social contract between the State and its citizens. Even in the context of income growth designed to increase the level of shared prosperity, the WB acknowledged that this in itself was insufficient to resolve the long-standing and historical problems of Haiti. The WB, therefore, recommended that an inclusive approach to growth requires additional mechanisms such as a pro-poor fiscal regime, and targeted social programmes and expenditures, which would redistribute resources towards the poor, whilst ensuring that the less well-off are an integral part of the process and that opportunities improve for all.
Unfortunately, for decades upon decades, Haiti’s political economy approach failed to provide the necessary services to the population nor has it created an environment which is conducive to sustainable growth. Not only has the dependent economic model resulted in a lack of development for the country but the prevailing regressive tax system has also unfortunately not produced adequate resources for the government. In a nutshell, Haiti has been defined by failed policies which have not been able to lift the bulk of the population from abject poverty and despite well-meaning pronouncements from CARICOM Heads of Government, little has been done by way of alleviating the difficulties of Haitians.
Furthermore, given the stigmatization of Haitians across the Caribbean, it will require a well-orchestrated programme of public education to dismantle the prejudices directed at Haitians, irrespective of their mode of migration. What do we do about the Haitian problem? What can we do about the legal limbo that defines so many Haitians who are neither fish nor fowl often in countries in which they have been domicile for decades?
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)