May 10, 2021

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When Climate Change and Xenophobia Collide

9 min read

The next night, the family was celebrating the engagement with chicken from KFC when they heard a loud crash. Seven immigration officials burst through the front door and demanded the family’s documents. “They were checking under the mattress, flipping everything out,” Frantz said. Kesnel whispered to his cousin, “Do they come here often?” His cousin replied, “This is the first time.” Frantz showed his work permit, and his children’s Bahamian passports. But when Nadia couldn’t produce a visa, an armed agent placed her in handcuffs. The agents debated whether to take her kids. The children of immigrants born in the Bahamas are essentially stateless, and have only a one-year window to seek Bahamian citizenship when they turn eighteen. Eventually, an agent pointed to the boys and said, “Let’s go.”

Nadia and the boys were loaded into a van, and transferred to a secret facility known as the Safe House. The previous year, a local nonprofit called Human Rights Bahamas had filed a lawsuit alleging abuses of detainees at the Safe House. “To the adults, this was a female prison,” a thirty-five-year-old Jamaican migrant said, of her time at the facility with her eleven-year-old daughter. “To the children, this was torture.” She reported waking to the screams of a sixteen-year-old Haitian girl being raped by authorities. The Supreme Court affirmed that the Jamaican woman and her daughter had been “unlawfully detained” and ordered them “released unconditionally.” (The Bahamian government declined to comment; last year, it told the press that alleged human-rights violations against migrants at the Safe House were “unsubstantiated.”) Nadia and her sons spent two nights at the Safe House. The next day, a guard ordered her to court.

Nadia recalls being brought before a judge with coiffed hair and manicured nails. Nadia may have had a case for asylum. In Haiti, a hike in the price of fuel had prompted a general strike in the summer of 2018, and the authorities had responded with violence; the police allegedly killed dozens of people, including children, in a neighborhood with ties to the protests. The country had recently gone into peyi lòk, a lockdown that had shut down schools and businesses. But Bahamian courts lacked straightforward avenues for migrants seeking asylum, and Nadia lacked a lawyer, so was left to beg. “I have two children,” she said. The judge ordered her deportation.

Nadia was led to a prison in Nassau, where she learned that her children had been seized by the state and placed in the care of Social Services. (Nadia’s younger son, Emmanuel, believed that his mother had been killed by the police; Kesnel had to reassure him, saying, “We will see her again.”) Nadia was given a blue-and-white-striped uniform, and placed in a cramped cell with twenty-two other women, some convicted of violent crimes. “I wanted to die,” she said. In early December, she was brought, in handcuffs, back to the court. The judge asked her whether she would prefer to turn her children over to Frantz or to have them deported with her. She elected to have the boys stay with their father. But after the hearing, according to Nadia, the judge expressed concern that, when Frantz went to work, there would be no one to look after the kids. Frantz protested that his children had been born in the Bahamas. “They don’t know anything about Haiti!” he said. But the judge had made up her mind, and, soon after, ordered the boys to be deported as well.

Hurricane Dorian hit amid an atmosphere of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the Bahamas. In 2016, a pastor named Adrian Francis founded an influential group called Operation Sovereign Bahamas, which urged the government to seize Haitians’ homes in the shantytowns. Soon after Minnis became Prime Minister, he set a two-month exit deadline for all undocumented migrants to leave the country; he vowed to deport those who stayed, and to prosecute any Bahamians who employed them. In 2018, the U.N.H.C.R. downgraded the Bahamas’ score on due process, citing violations of migrants’ rights, including persistent reports of “police entering the homes and shelters without probable cause, and sometimes soliciting bribes,” and instances of migrants being detained without access to legal counsel or bail. The government’s immigration crackdown may have stymied evacuation efforts when Dorian arrived: Joseph Hillhouse, a fire chief from Florida who volunteered to dig out bodies from the wreckage in the Mudd, told our team that he met Haitians searching for their loved ones who explained that “they didn’t evacuate because they were fearing deportation.” In the storm’s aftermath, Operation Sovereign Bahamas organized a protest outside the pink-painted storm shelter where Nadia and her children slept, calling for the Haitians’ expulsion. Though Francis lamented the storm’s destruction, he found a silver lining in displacements from the shantytowns: “Hurricane Dorian did the job that the government refused to do.”

After the storm, though it had promised that migrants would be safe, the government pursued a program of mass deportation. According to the International Organization for Migration, in the three months following the hurricane, the government deported more than a thousand Haitians, including at least twenty children, some of whom had been born in the Bahamas, four of whom were deported alone, without a parent or guardian. (The government declined to comment on the deportations.) Soon after the storm, authorities erected a high metal fence around the Mudd and Pigeon Peas, another shantytown, preventing survivors from returning, even to fetch their belongings. Bulldozers razed their homes, including Nadia’s. Then the government banned all reconstruction in the shantytowns. The Prime Minister declared that his government would use “compulsory acquisition,” a form of eminent domain, to claim the property. “We will eradicate shantytowns and return law to our country,” he told the House of Assembly. He stressed that the growing force of storms necessitated the Haitians’ evictions from the shantytowns—an assertion that had a seed of truth. “Buildings on the Mudd and Pigeon Peas were inferiorly built,” he had told the press shortly after Dorian, “and they were not set up for disaster, flooding, and hurricanes.”

In fact, the land dispute preceded the storm. For more than a decade, the government had been trying to demolish the shantytowns, citing issues of safety and public health. In 2018, Human Rights Bahamas sued the government to halt the demolitions, and compiled evidence that officials were primarily motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment. The Supreme Court granted an injunction that saved the neighborhoods. But after the storm’s havoc, the government resumed the seizures. Fred Smith, who runs Human Rights Bahamas, claimed that the government had used the hurricane as “a dispensation from God to illegally destroy people’s homes.”

In December, 2019, we met with Duane Sands, then the minister of health, who had helped lead the government’s storm-recovery efforts, at his office in Nassau. Sands, a fifty-eight-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon with a thin mustache, is a vocal advocate about the dangers of climate change—“At a very basic level, we have a new reality,” he said—and knows that they tend to deepen existing social inequalities. In January of last year, in an article that he co-authored for The New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Double Environmental Injustice: Climate Change, Hurricane Dorian, and the Bahamas,” he noted that small island nations “contribute virtually nothing to climate change,” yet bear its most damning consequences. In particular, he noted, the effects are felt by poor people, and especially by migrants. “Socioeconomically disadvantaged and marginalized populations sustain disproportionate harm and loss,” he wrote. “We need to prepare now for future Dorian-like scenarios in a manner that redresses environmental injustice.”

But for Sands, the government’s seizure of the Haitian shantytowns was necessary. Given the architectural vulnerability of the Mudd, he said, the safety of Haitian migrants was at risk: “The fact that they were allowed to develop led to tremendous destruction and loss of life, as we saw.” To allow migrants to rebuild there would be inhumane, he said. “The next storm that comes, they’re vulnerable again,” he said, though he noted that he believed stricter immigration enforcement would also benefit Bahamians. As the climate warmed, resources would grow more scarce; in his view, the government had to continue deportations and restrict migration to preserve those resources for native Bahamians. “The Bahamas can’t solve the problem of Haiti,” he said.

On December 5, 2019, Nadia was rustled from her prison cell and driven to an immigration detention center. There, after eight weeks of separation, she was reunited with her boys. Kesnel begged, “Mom, I don’t want to go to Haiti!” The next morning, around seven o’clock, Nadia and the boys boarded a flight to Port-au-Prince. The plane was full of deportees who’d lost their homes to Hurricane Dorian. Some women on the plane alleged that they had been sexually assaulted in detention; men, covered in bruises, told I.O.M. officials that they’d been beaten by Bahamian authorities. (The Bahamian government declined to comment.) It was the first time that Nadia’s children had been on a plane. Kesnel said, of his view from the plane’s window, “It looks so scary. It looks like someone is going to push you off!” Of Haiti, he said, “My mother told me it was going to be bad.”

In February, 2020, we visited Nadia and the boys in Cap-Haïtien. Nadia dressed up for the occasion, wearing a black cotton dress covered with hearts, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She met us in the street, guided us through a maze of venders with bright advertisements for weddings, coffins, and rice, and led us into her apartment. Her sons sat by the front door, which consisted of a thin green sheet, and listened to Cardi B, bobbing their heads in sunglasses. Nadia waved and urged us to sit down on a bed with Garfield sheets.

Two boys passing the time in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.

She told us that she had felt powerless against the storm. “If I’d been attacked by a machete or a knife, I’d have been able to defend myself,” she said. “But it’s nature. Can you fight against nature?” Since arriving in Haiti, she had struggled to feed her sons; she was relying on cash transfers from Frantz to stay afloat. She lacked the funds required to send the boys to school, and they speak little Creole. They also seemed to have acquired infections. Kesnel took off his sunglasses to reveal a painful sore on his eye; Emmanuel showed itchy scabs on his arm. The boys often asked why there was no television, electricity, refrigerator, or cornflakes. Kesnel missed math class, and Emmanuel begged for the movies he once watched in the Mudd: “Captain America,” “Moana,” “Spider-Man.”

Since then, the arrival of the coronavirus in Haiti has made life more difficult. Nadia and her sons live in a crowded neighborhood, where infections can spread quickly. She had planned to start selling fruit on a local beach, but a nationwide lockdown made that challenging. In the Bahamas, Frantz is often unable to find work, though he tries to scrounge up remittances to insure that the boys can eat. The Bahamian government has deported more than a hundred Haitians since the virus struck. Others remain stuck in long-term detention in the Bahamas, with few protections against COVID-19; in June, they staged a hunger strike.

When we visited, Nadia told her sons, of their life in Haiti, “This phase of life is just a page in a book. Soon we’ll turn the page.” She’d recently learned that a neighbor from the Mudd—a teen-age girl—got deported from the Bahamas to Cap-Haïtien, only to sneak back into Nassau. The story gave her hope. She believed that living in the Bahamas was her sons’ birthright. She, too, had unfinished business there. On the night of her arrest in Nassau, she’d placed her gold engagement ring in her purse, and left it on Frantz’s cousin’s couch. At the time, she liked to imagine reclaiming the ring, and marrying Frantz in a simple ceremony. As a family, she said, they’d rebuild their house in the Bahamas, this time with materials that could withstand storms, and once again painted a rosy pink.

Cristina Baussan, Letícia Duarte, Ottavia Spaggiari, Sarah Stillman
2021-02-16 06:00:00

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