31 January 2009

Migration and Human Rights

I've been working on this piece for the past couple weeks. I am responding to an article published in The Tribune Insight (Nassau, Bahamas) on Jan 12th about Haitian immigration (if you want a copy, let me know, I can email it to you).

Trying to figure out the best way to respond has weighed on me... because it is so important and because it was/is hard to write. While I wrote this as a letter to editors of newspapers in Nassau, I plan to continue the writing and turn it into a longer article. And so I see it as a work in progress... there is so much more to say about these issues and concerns. I hope, like others, to create more dialogue and more exchange and more space for us to talk about these issues -- especially my fellow Bahamians and the rest of my Caribbean brothers and sisters.

The Tribune; The Nassau Guardian; The Bahama Journal

Dear Editors,

In response to the recent and ongoing debates about Haitian immigration in the Bahamas, I urge my fellow Bahamians to think about these issues from a place/space of justice and humanity. More specifically, in direct response to John Marquis’ article on the 12th of January in The Tribune’s Insight, I offer a challenge to his racist colonial engagement with history and culture. As a Caribbean scholar, writer, and cultural critic, I feel a great sense of obligation to enter these debates. While I live and work abroad, my spirit is also at home. The work I do as a teacher and community worker is rooted in the struggle for liberation of all people, especially people of African descent and communities who are marginalized. In the university courses I teach, I often discuss issues concerning immigration broadly, particularly in the Caribbean context. I also share my ideas and feelings about these issues at home and abroad, mostly among friends, family, and fellow writers, artists, and scholars. But I have been too silent about the experience of Haitians in the Bahamas in my writing; hence, why I write this letter, knowing full well that you, the editors of our Bahamian newspapers, may not publish it. I know this because other letters in response to these debates, challenging John Marquis particularly, have not been published. But I write this letter anyway—to you and to my fellow Bahamians, in support of the rights of Haitian migrants and Haitian Bahamians.

We in the Bahamas traffic in ugly and hateful language when speaking about Haitians and Haitian Bahamians. Our government policies on “illegal” immigration and the detention of Haitian migrants in the Bahamas is too often inhumane and violates the most basic notions of human rights. We criminalize and deport Haitian migrants who seek refuge in the face of grave danger and the social and political unrest in their country. We depend upon the labour of Haitian migrants everyday, even as we deny them legal rights and/or status to be in the country. We even deny rights to the children of migrants, who are by birth Bahamian citizens. But due to an outdated law that grants automatic citizenship only to those who have Bahamian parents, many Haitian Bahamians remain stateless in their own country because of the difficulty in securing their status. They (like all children of migrants in the Bahamas) have to apply for citizenship at 18—which can take years, especially if one does not have access to legal help. On top of the legal challenges that Haitians and Haitian Bahamians deal with, they are socially stigmatized—from slurs and racial stereotypes to poor treatment at our clinics and hospitals, Haitian people bear much blame for a variety of social ills in Bahamian society. When times are rough, tourism is down, crime is on the rise, and/or people are getting laid off, Haitians are the scapegoats for our troubles, crime, and strapped resources.

I have heard too often from my fellow Bahamians that Haitians are “different” from us, that they are “violent,” and that “they taking over.” I respond by trying to reason with people and call for a sense of humanity. I point out the obvious: that we as people are connected, as Caribbeans, as neighbours, as having common histories and ancestry. But my conversations halt or take a different turn once I indicate my belief in the rights of Haitian migrants to seek political asylum and the rights of Haitian Bahamians to their birthright of citizenship. Sometimes we have arguments, and other times, people say things like “they don’t belong here” or “they need to go back to their country” or “we can’t help and why should we.” I respond with a slew of reasons why we should help and why they do belong here, grounded in human rights, a sense of justice, and also in history. During these moments, it occurs to me that part of the problem here is our lack of knowledge—what we don’t know about the related and connecting histories between Haiti and the Bahamas, and what we don’t know about the region and global relations of power, and how all these are linked to the effects of slavery and colonialism. Some of what we don’t know is the lack in our education systems; some of what we don’t know is because of silence and fear.

And sadly, some of what we don’t know is miseducation, coming from the very sources that are suppose to keep us informed; case in point, Marquis’ imperialist and white colonial view of Haitian and colonial history, which he uses to “prove” his point about the “dangers” of Haitian “illegal” migration into the Bahamas. He uses a very skewed and racist vision of history to support his unfounded argument that Haitians “introduce a violent strain in Bahamian society” and that we come from “different tribal backgrounds,” which is frankly ridiculous and wrong. In the article, he repeats an analogy that he has used before and insists on using again—Haitians entering the Bahamas is like pitbulls mixing with potcakes. By comparing both Haitians and Bahamians to dogs, Marquis participates in a long colonial tradition, started during slavery, one that sees Black people as animals (i.e. scientific racism), and one that views creolization (the mixing of African & European people, languages, & culture) as contamination. Miscegenation (racial mixing) was a threat to colonial white rule during slavery, but European planters and slave owners also depended upon and encouraged the rape of Black women to control the enslaved population, as well as to “produce” and “breed” more bodies for slavery. Marquis claims to have studied Haitian history, yet it is clear he only looks at history and politics from a white colonizer’s perspective, while leaving out and ignoring so much. Marquis’ words are dangerous (as Helen Klonaris has expressed already in her letter to the editor on January 25th), not only because of his racist and imperial gaze on history and culture, but also because he creates and sustains hysteria with his words. He feeds on people’s fear of difference and manipulates the anxieties that Bahamians have about the economy, crime, and migrants straining resources. He predicts that the Bahamas will be “ruined” because of “illegal immigration” in just 10 to 15 years, and he uses false claims about Haiti and Haitian people to support his prediction. He relies on distorted colonial views of history to form his opinion about the current socio-political climate in Haiti and the Bahamas.

We must silence these false claims and inaccuracies. We must do our own research of Haiti, the Bahamas, and the rest of the Caribbean. We should think about how many of us have migrated and sought refuge (for education, for work, for family, for love, for better opportunities) abroad. We should think about how many of us desire to move and live abroad. We should ask ourselves how we want and expect to be treated if/when we migrate. We should really think about what it must feel like to have to flee/escape one’s own home because one has no other choices. To do this, we must think about migration rights and human rights—perhaps migration as a human right. We ought to ask each other questions and uncover the silences and culture of intolerance that bind us. And then maybe we can face certain truths and histories, reflecting on how close we are to Haiti and how long our stories as places, colonies, and countries have crossed.

We need to remember that Haitians have LONG migrated into the Bahamas and have LONG time been a part of the Bahamas and Bahamian culture. If one supports migration rights and human rights, then we cannot support how our government deports Haitians, and we cannot support the statelessness of Haitian Bahamians. We should call on our government to offer more assistance to Haiti. We need to recognize the problems in Haiti are our problems too – people are suffering. We should not discuss the “return” of Haitian migrants until more efforts are made to truly support and help free Haiti from the chains of debt and poverty (these efforts should be led by the Bahamas along with other countries in the region). This should not be seen as a handout, but as genuine regional solidarity and public acknowledgment of our commonalities and complicated histories.

Haiti does not exist in a vacuum. It did not suddenly become destitute or mismanage resources on its own. There are many reasons: tied to all the ways in which global capitalism works and how the Global South feeds/sustains and keeps wealthy the Global North. There are many reasons why Haiti is in political and economic crisis, why it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Some of these reasons have to do with the violent dictatorships and corrupt governments since the 1960s, BUT many have to do with regimes of power (like IMF & World Bank), United States imperialism and their support of dictatorships, and a long history of interference. A history and silenced past too long and complicated to recount here, but I offer a list to begin/open the conversation: The Haitian Revolution in 1804 sparked intense fear across the Caribbean, in the United States, Latin America, and Europe. As a result, Europe and the United States worked to destabilize Haiti; to name a few examples: France demanded 150 million in gold to recognize Haiti as a nation; the U.S. Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934; Haiti not fully recognized as a republic until well into the 1900s; United States through their Munroe Doctrine continuously interfering in Haiti’s economic and political landscape for their own military and resource interests for over one hundred years.

Haiti like the rest of the (post)colonial world has a context – slavery, colonialism, and new forms of colonialism. This historical/political/social context must be taken into account as we try to understand the present, and as we work towards a better future. A future where we embrace each other regardless of our differences, a future where we love and support each other, a future where we can all be human and free.

Angelique V. Nixon
Postdoctoral Fellow, Africana Studies, New York University
January 31, 2009, New York, NY


Nicolette Bethel said...

Amen, amen, and amen, Angelique.

Marquis' views are outdated and dangerous -- all the more so because they are uncritically received round here.

Thanks for the critique!

Anonymous said...

time to unleash the fiyah!

dangerous is right, nicolette. i really think we suffer from so much complacency in the bahamas: "well, ok, i see how that could be inhumane but that's how it is." the kind of hegemony that gives marquis power requires complacency. there's also delusion. . .almost a collective delusion.

give thanks for the fiyah!