Minister of Labour and Immigration, the Hon. Keith Bell hosted a news conference on Monday morning, September 27th, 2021, to update the Bahamian public on the burgeoning illegal migrant situation in the Southern Bahamas.
The onslaught of illegal migration began earlier in September when two groups were taken into custody by authorities. On Thursday, September 9th, a group of forty-one (41) Haitian migrants, was apprehended off Little Inagua, and another forty-five (45) Haitian nationals were apprehended on Saturday, September 18th.
Eighty-six (86) Haitian migrants were detained in Matthew Town, Inagua, after they were apprehended in the southern Bahamas on Wednesday afternoon, September 22nd, shortly after 1:00 pm, on a Haitian wooden sloop 52 nautical miles northwest of Great Inagua. The following day, on Thursday afternoon, September 23rd, seventy (70) Haitian migrants were taken into custody, and shortly after 8pm on the same day, another one hundred and fifty one (151) migrants were apprehended off of a sloop spotted five miles west of Inagua.
On Saturday morning, September 25th, a Haitian sloop was intercepted one and a half miles northwest of Inagua with fifty (50) migrants on board. Another Haitian sloop, later that same morning, was spotted in the Ragged Island chain. The one hundred and forty-five (145) illegal migrants onboard were apprehended and trasported into Matthew Town, Inagua.
On Saturday, more than five hundred (500) illegal migrants were being held in Inagua, having been apprehended within the preceding 72 hours.
The very next day, on Sunday, September 26th, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force reported that a mass exercise was underway by multiple law enforcement agencies to extract approximately four hundred (400) Haitian migrants from Flamingo and Water Cays, uninhabited cays in the Ragged Island chain. The vessel this group is believed to have arrived in was found by a local fisherman partially submerged off Flamingo Cay.
As of Monday, September 27th, 501 migrants were in Inagua and 415 migrants still off of Flamingo Cay (a total of 916 Haitian migrants in custody), according to Minister Bell, as he addressed media on Monday morning.
“These are unprecedented numbers. It is something that we are dealing with as quickly as we possibly can. Again, I will assure the Bahamian public – it is important that we all understand that while we strike a balance between protecting our borders and ensuring that all our Bahamian citizens are kept safe – we also have an obligation to ensure that people who enter our country are treated with basic human dignity and respect. That is what we want to ensure happens.” These numbers, pointed out Minister Bell, adds to the numbers of migrants already being held in the dentention center, which held more than one hundred people [from the Sept 9th and 18th apprehensions], before the latest arrivals.
He stated that those already in detention had to be dealt with in the ongoing process of repatriation – which he emphasized ‘has not stopped’.
With the numbers now coming into the country, Minister Bell, commented that they were working to ensure that migrants would be repatriated as quickly as possible. “We also intend to reach out to our US counterparts, to ask about one of their carriers to take all of the people directly back from Inagua to Haiti in one trip… As I indicated, I cannot speak definitively on that as yet, but we are pursuing…”
When asked about migrants being tested for Covid-19, he replied that the main concerns seen to date had been incidents of dehydration. “We have not come across any cases to date that warrant extreme concern that there is Covid-19 among them…” he said.
Seeing the numbers of Haitian migrants attempting to enter the US in recent weeks, Minister Bell was asked about how The Bahamas looked to ramp up security within its southern borders. He responded that security was very high on the agenda, and spoke about vessels purchased in the ‘Sandy Bottom’ project when the current government was last in office during 2012 to 2017, from ocean ferries to vessels for coastal and shallow patrols. “Minister Wayne Munroe is in direct communication with the Commodore of the Defence Force to ensure that we block the channel between Inagua and Haiti – that is critical. So, we are deploying our assets in those areas… Given the numbers, there is information that there may be more coming. We have a number of fishermen in the area, and we’ve asked them to be on the look out for these persons. I was made aware recently of a Dominican Republic vessel captured as well… There are some fundamental issues that have been ongoing that we will have to address authoritatively and decisively – inclusive of constructing a proper multi-purpose facility in Inagua that can not only house the numbers of immigrants, but to also act as a hurricane shelter – the time has come.”
Taking the current financial constraints as a result of the pandemic and recent hurricanes into consideration, Minister Bell commented that such a project must still be seen as a priority, given the current situation in Inagua, and possible continued future migrant challenges in that area.
He commented that a sitting magistrate position may also have to be considered for Inagua, given the due process necessary for repatriations, adding that Chief Magistrate Ferguson-Pratt and her team traveled to Inagua on Sunday, September 26th, 2021, and began court proceedings on Monday morning. “We have to ensure that we strike a balance in protecting human rights, while at the same time protecting our borders and our Bahamian citizens, keeping the country safe.”
When asked about reports of pastors in Inagua being asked to house migrants within their facilities, Minister Bell replied, “When we arrived [in Inagua] there were in excess of 350 migrants being held under tents at the Police Station. We had to ensure that we didn’t spark an international incident, and even apart from that, as a Christian nation, we had an obligation to ensure that these people are properly housed, fed and have proper facilities. So, we were under an obligation to find a place immediately, and we had to go within the community. We had to ask the Anglican church, and the non-denominational church, and we had to look at the school. At the end of the day, the Universal church came to our aid, and I thank them publicly and can’t thank them enough. We have to now get them out of that facility as quickly as we can, having regard to due process.”
In answer to a question on expected timing for repatriations after the completion of court proceedings on island, Minister Bell stated, “We anticipate repatriating 916 Haitians back to Haiti by the end of this week, “adding, “… that is very very aggressive, and that depends on whether we get the cooperation of the US in terms of providing us with a carrier, also on the availability of one or two Bahamasair flights, along with getting the cooperation of the Haitian government in the repatriation process – who’ve historically been very cooperative with a quick turn-around in terms of accepting their residents back.”
Minister Bell, emphasized the need to keep open lines of communication with Haiti going forward and indicated that Prime Minister Davis, along with Foreign Minister Mitchell began that process while at the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, September 25th, 2021.
In answer to a direct question about allowing this latest wave of illegal migrants the opportunity to stay in the country, Bell was firm in the government’s current policy stance of having zero-tolerance of illegal migration, and encouraged people seeking to enter the country, to do so by legal means.
He also stated that multiple government agencies were now communicating, coordinating efforts and working together. “I want to assure the Bahamian public that your government is on top of it, and we will keep you informed with proper information, and we will ensure repatriation takes place as quickly as possible.”
To encourage the assistance of local donor agencies and volunteers, Minister Bell added before concluding the session, “The Haitian people are facing multiple crises in their country, with natural disasters like earthquakes, and political instability – heightened by the recent assassination of their President, so those agencies, like the Red Cross, who have contacted us already, thank you, and those who can donate supplies and volunteer assistance as Christians, let us know.”