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Living in fear

LEAH COOPER The Nassau Guardian

Some storm victims in shelters on New Providence are reportedly living in fear of immigration raids and deportations nearly two months after Hurricane Dorian.

Frieda Joseph, 41, who is now staying at the Kendal G. L. Isaacs Gymnasium, said she also knows of individuals who have opted to stay on Abaco because they are afraid that if they leave as other storm victims have, they would be deported.

“People are risking their lives to stay in the country,” Joseph said.

“People have watched their family members die. Some people can’t find their family members. They lost their children, husband, wife, cousin, sister and brother.

“This isn’t right. They’ve been through all of this drama. This shouldn’t happen like this. They (the government) should at least give people a chance to get on their feet, to try to get their papers in order and get their minds together.”

Joseph lived in the Pigeon Peas, a shantytown in Marsh Harbour, Abaco.

Back on that island, she said, she worked on a chicken farm, but it was a part-time job that required her to work two weeks a month.

Joseph claimed she is documented, and said her heart goes out to those who are not and face repatriation.

Nadjah Francois, 35, who also now lives at the gym, said many who were there have fled.

“Plenty people [have left]. They don’t even know where they’re going,” Francois told The Nassau Guardian.

“They don’t have [anyone] here, but because they think immigration’s going to come here to lock them up, they left. It’s very sad. I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know how long we’re going to be here. I don’t know.”

Francois claimed immigration officers caught two shelter residents on University Drive while they were waiting to catch a bus a few weeks ago.

This, she said, was the reason many residents decided to leave the “safe abode” provided by the government.

Francois said: “Some people with work permits are afraid. Imagine people who don’t have [anything].”

Not long after the storm, Attorney General Carl Bethel said people with work permits whose jobs are no longer available due to the storm, should leave the country.

This statement reportedly created deep worries among those who fall into that category.

They, along with others like Francois, remain in limbo.

Her sentiments were echoed by Odeus Rodnel, 35, who said some Bahamians treat illegal immigrants terribly.

Odeus Rodnel, a resident at the Kendal G.L. Isaacs Gymnasium, speaks about the living conditions at the shelter yesterday. photos: TONYA ALEXIS

“This hurricane is finished. We lost everything. So, I don’t see the sense of [taking] people back to Haiti,” he said.

“So, some people are now scared to stay here (the shelter) because of what they hear in the news.”

The father of two, who lived in The Mudd, another shantytown in Marsh Harbour, said he is now coping with the stress of renewing his work permit which expired on Wednesday, as he is also at risk for deportation.

He claimed all of his documents were destroyed in the storm, which makes the process more complicated.

On Wednesday, the House of Assembly passed a bill designed to make it easier for storm victims to replace important documents without paying fees.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield described the bill as “part of our journey toward reclaiming the things that we have lost in the storm”.

The bill is not likely to bring comfort to some like Rodnel, however.

Speaking of his expired work permit, he said, “It’s very difficult to renew that because I’m in the shelter, and I do not work. So, I cannot find the money for it.

“You know, you need $2,000 to renew, but that’s very difficult.

“It’s so sad. So many people over here, they don’t work. So, they can’t find $2,000 to pay for a work permit. I don’t know what the government can do for people like that, especially people from Abaco and Freeport.”

But under immigration policy, a work permit is only granted if there is an actual job available and the Department of Labour determines that there is no Bahamian available to fill the position.

For a renewal to be considered, the job would still have to be available.

This places some in a difficult position. They have no work, but they want to renew work permits.

Bethel noted yesterday that the intent of the law is to waive fees for current documents.

Rodnel claimed that back on Abaco, he made an honest living as a carpenter.

During the storm, he said, he stayed at a nearby church with his blind father, his cousin and her two kids.

He recalled moving from shelter to shelter with his family in the midst of Dorian’s roaring winds and monstrous sea surge while trying to find somewhere safe.

On the way to the Government Complex, Rodnel said, they encountered many who died or were too injured to venture any farther.

He said he has no idea where life will take him next, but he hopes that he can at least find a way to sustain himself and provide for his children.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the government placed repatriations of undocumented storm victims on hold.

But it later reverted to its repatriation policy.

Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson said undocumented migrants in shelters will face deportation, noting that the facilities will not be used “to circumvent the law”.

Two weeks ago, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) urged The Bahamas to end deportations to Haiti for now, amid concerns over the government’s immigration policy and the treatment of undocumented Haitian migrants after Dorian.

It claimed Haitians impacted by the hurricane are panicking “and reports are emerging of people leaving temporary shelters for fear of arrest, and of people failing to avail themselves of necessary humanitarian services or going into hiding”.

The government said, however, it has had no such reports.

Bethel later said that it is “unfortunate” that international organizations like the United Nations (UN) would apply standards to small countries like The Bahamas “that they do not enforce in their own countries”.

The attorney general added that the UN should not “prejudge an issue based on something that they would’ve heard…from some social activist group”.

On Saturday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) defended the government’s decision to deport Haitian nationals in the weeks after Hurricane Dorian, insisting that it did so in accordance with international standards and Bahamian law.

It said the repatriation policy was relaxed to ensure the safety, security and well-being of all persons regardless of their nationality. It added that all displaced persons were accommodated in safe abodes, whether with family members or an authorized shelter.

The ministry said the policy was resumed “once the urgent search and rescue phase had passed and a semblance of normalcy returned to the country”.

Hurricane Dorian was reported to be the strongest hurricane in modern records for the northwestern Bahamas, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Storm survivors have told stories of near death experiences and losing limbs, family members, friends, homes and businesses.

Hundreds still remain missing on Abaco and Grand Bahama, and at least 65 people were confirmed dead.

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