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Without Homes, or a State: In Dorian-Battered Bahamas, Haitians Are Hard Hit

NASSAU, Bahamas — Kerline Mildor escaped the wreckage of Hurricane Dorian with her three children and the clothes on her back.

Ms. Mildor, 33, an immigrant from Haiti who lived on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas for 14 years, lacks Bahamian citizenship. Her children, born in the Bahamas, are stateless, among the thousands stuck in immigration limbo with nationality to neither country.

They were sent by plane to Nassau, where they are staying with 80 other people in a makeshift shelter at the Calvary Haitian Baptist Church, where their present is bleak and their future uncertain.

“They brought us here and told us that it was going to be good,” she said. “They serve us rotten food and have us sleeping on the floor. Some dogs are living better. I have seen dogs who live better, in very nice cages.”

The populations of Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands were evacuated after Dorian killed at least 50 people and left 1,300 unaccounted for. A new tropical storm was threatening to hit the same area on Saturday.

While many Dorian survivors arrived in the nation’s capital and stayed at the homes of friends and relatives, more than 2,000 others — almost all Haitians — are staying in shelters with nowhere to go, no prospects for work and precarious legal status.

Many more Haitians are feared dead, because they may have stayed behind to ride out the storm in their unsafe squatter settlements, distrustful of government shelters.

An entire community of people who already had a contentious history with the Bahamian government is now homeless and, in some cases, in fear of deportation.

Haitians are notoriously stigmatized in the Bahamas, where they are often blamed for crime and feel that Bahamians discriminate against them. A policy enacted in 2014 requiring all people to have passports was largely seen as a way to crack down on Haitian immigrants and their children.

In an interview with The New York Times, the minister of immigration, Elsworth Johnson, said the government had suspended deportation roundups in areas affected by the storm, and shelters are considered sanctuaries. But while the government is providing services to survivors regardless of their country of origin, the legal status of migrants affected by the storm will not be ignored forever, he said.

He seemed to suggest that the undocumented in the Nassau shelters are particularly at risk if they venture outside.

“Eventually persons will come out of those shelters, and we know that people are leaving those shelters, and if they’re not properly documented, then we apply the law,” Mr. Johnson said.

The Bahamian government, he said, will not give asylum to storm survivors, because that requires proof of political persecution.

Carl Bethel, the attorney general, said immigrant and Bahamian survivors are treated equally. The children have rights to health care and education, and Haitians and Bahamians stay in the same shelters.

Nonetheless, many shelter inhabitants say that virtually everyone in them is Haitian, and the government has offered little guidance as to what will be done with them.

“I am not looking for answers tomorrow. I need answers today,” said Rodney Louis, 52, who is living at the Kendal Isaacs gymnasium with his family. “I have been asking for help since last Thursday and I haven’t heard anything. They feed us, but I want a house to live in. I need a job.”

Fred R. Smith, a human rights lawyer, said the government should spend the influx of storm-related foreign aid to provide safe and sanitary housing for the thousands of people of Haitian descent who provide low-cost labor in construction and domestic help. Many Haitians have work permits, or are entitled to them, and the government has long ignored their living conditions, he said.

Mr. Smith filed an injunction against the government for its plans to bulldoze Pigeon Peas and the Mudd, the informal settlements on Great Abaco Island where many Haitians lived and were subjected to deportation raids and demolitions, even though many actually paid rent.

Hurricane Dorian, oddly, accomplished the government’s plan to raze the shantytowns.

“I made the argument in court that they could not demolish those homes, because they had no place to go,” Mr. Smith said. “Now they are homeless. What are they going to do with them?”

Mr. Smith noted that if only 2,000 people are in shelters, many Haitian people are still unaccounted for. “Where are all those people?” he said.

“This is a huge issue that needs to be addressed,” Mr. Smith said. “The honeymoon of helping people is going to end very quickly.”

Esther Innocent, 13, said children of Haitian descent like her, born in the Bahamas but lacking the right to Bahamian citizenship because their parents are not citizens, are scared they could be deported.

“It’s terrifying,” Esther, an eighth-grader, said. “I have never been to Haiti.”

Esther is staying with her mother and twin brothers at the gym, where she said that although they are grateful for the food and shelter, she notices slights that she attributes to Bahamian xenophobia.

“I notice that the Bahamian people here get juice,” she said. “They give us water.”

Many Haitians interviewed said that they had no safety net of relatives, because all of them also had lived in the informal settlements obliterated by the storm.

“If I were to make a list of the things I need, I would have to write a book,” said Fedline Homere, 27, who moved to the Bahamas from Haiti when she was 12 and has three stateless children.

She said it costs $ 2,000 a year to arrange for work permits, a sum she cannot afford.

“First thing I want is to get out of this country and go somewhere better,” she said. “I don’t know if the government even knows I exist. You can never feel safe. The shelter is better than staying on Abaco, because I have food. But I need to get out of here.”

Several people said they hoped to join relatives in Miami.

President Trump made clear this week that United States immigration authorities would step up vigilance in checking for storm survivors who lacked a valid reason to be in the Bahamas in the first place.

“Everybody needs totally proper documentation because, look, the Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there,” Mr. Trump said Monday. “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members, and some very, very bad drug dealers. So we’re going to be very, very strong on that.”

Karl Henri Chatelier, the first secretary of the Haitian Embassy in Nassau, said his country was not in the position to be making demands of the Bahamian government on behalf of Haitian citizens.

“We cannot say that if they stay, they are going to be persecuted,” Mr. Chatelier said Thursday outside one of the shelters. “We want to make sure they are well treated, want to make sure they are in good health. When you are not in your living room, not in your bed, things will be difficult for you.”

At the church shelter, some storm survivors got so upset recounting the conditions that uniformed soldiers warned Times journalists doing the interviews against “inciting a riot.”

“I think Haitians and Bahamians are being treated the same: bad,” said Timothy Rolle, one of the few Bahamians at the shelter, whose furious diatribe contributed to the soldier’s admonition.

A few hours later, after a week at the shelter, the survivors were provided air beds.

Source: NYT > World News

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