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a135: BAHAMAS: Migrants start to place a strain on social systems (fwd)
Immigrants from Haiti ease labour shortages and do the jobs Bahamians don't want to do, but increasing numbers and economic slowdown could soon cause problems
Financial Times; Dec 19, 2001
By ANDREW BOUNDS
The Bahamas has hosted immigrants since the Eleutheran Adventurers, a group of religious dissidents from Bermuda and England, repopulated the archipelago in 1648. The Spanish had all but wiped out the indigenous Lucaya Indians.
The biggest number of immigrants have arrived from Haiti, the French- speaking half of Hispaniola, a short voyage to the south.
Traditionally, Haitians were farmers or took the jobs Bahamians did not want, as gardeners, nannies or day labourers.
Their presence has now become a political issue as growing numbers of dispossessed boat people flee the turmoil of Haiti, the Caribbean's poorest country, for one of its richest.
Native Bahamians fear being swamped as almost a thousand Haitians a month are intercepted by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force.
Nobody knows how many make it ashore on one of the archipelago's 700 islands, or perish at sea.
Earl Deveaux, minister of immigration, says the government believes immigrants are beneficial for society and the economy: it issues 10,000 work permits a year.
But he fears the influx of so many unskilled workers at once is putting unacceptable strain on the health and education systems.
"We have an extremely generous immigration policy, as open as any country in the world," he says. "But when the front door is open I object to people using the back."
Mr Deveaux says there are 5,000 legally registered Haitian workers in the Bahamas, who have brought 12-13,000 dependent family members with them, who also receive residency rights. However, many estimates put the number of Haitians at 40,000 - more than 12 per cent of the population.
Diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis often remain unchecked because illegal immigrants fear going to the authorities, he says. In some schools the majority of children are French-speaking Haitian and around half the births at Nassau's public hospital are to Haitians.
"It is causing a new kind of prejudice," says Sir Orville Turnquest, the outgoing governor-general, especially as the economy slows and jobs are lost.
He believes that, within 10 years, the Haitian community could have its own political party that could hold the balance of power in an election and force cultural changes on the islands.
Others would argue that Haitians have already shaped Bahamian society, unseen. Few would guess that Janet Brown is of Haitian stock. Ms Brown, marketing manager for the state telecoms company, Batelco, is one of 19 children of a former butler.
They all went to college, and she obtained an MBA. Her father, Willie Rafeal Georges, helped them live the immigrant dream. He saved enough money to buy a 15-acre farm, and used the profits to educate them.
"My father instilled in us hard work and dedication," she says. "There is prejudice here, but you can overcome it. People see you as Haitian and classify you in a certain way."
Ms Brown's sister, Julie Georges, has set up a business centre for Haitians with Mary Reckley, a former secretary. The idea came when labourers on her father's farm asked her to translate documents, such as birth certificates, they needed to renew visas.
The pair realised they could make money and provide a needed service. The centre has grown quickly and employs five people in Nassau and four in Haiti.
However, Haitians' remain sidelined, despite their newfound economic muscle, says Mrs Reckley.
"It is still a hidden community. They are not very vocal." Thus the only contact many Bahamians have is by reading about the flood of migrants in the newspapers.
Some 7,000 illegal immigrants, four-fifths Haitian, were detained in the year to September. The country spends Dollars 1.8m a year on repatriation.
There are increasing numbers of Cubans and Chinese, too, using the Bahamas as a stepping stone to the US.
Many rely on family or friends already in the Bahamas to shelter them. "When you see someone in trouble you help them," says Philippe, a Haitian taxi driver.
"There are a lot of safe harbours in the Bahamas, just like in the old days of pirates," says Mr Deveaux.
He said Cuba had been especially obstructive in receiving back its fleeing citizens and that while Haiti was at last co-operating, bureaucratic hurdles raised the cost.
The prime minister, Hubert Ingraham, has pressed the US president, George W Bush, to take more responsibility for refugees heading for the US and to resolve the Haiti problem.
Foreign aid has been suspended, increasing the misery and delaying a solution that might stem the flow of migrants.
Emilus Markhurine, a gardener who arrived in the Bahamas in 1987, earns Dollars 260 a week, the equivalent of six month's wages in Haiti. "I could not get anything like that at home," he says. "That is the only reason to leave."
Genius Joseph, 49, also a gardener, supports his four children with the money he makes. The Bahamas gains cheap labourer and talented people but it faces a strain on its system.
Long-term prosperity in Haiti is the only solution for both countries. The pull of home is strong for the emigres. But they will not return until opportunities are available.
Ms Brown visits Haiti several times a year. "Haiti could be a fantastic," she says. "When I go I imagine myself living there. I would love to retire there."
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