Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Sunday, 20 September 2009 14:48 UK

Bahamas outlook clouds for Haitians

A typical Bahamas beach, white sand coves, azure waters
Thousands of Haitians see the Bahamas as a land of promise

By Nick Davis
BBC News, The Bahamas

Row after row of taxis are lined up along the street, their drivers milling about as tourists stream off the latest cruise ship to have docked in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas.

A tour guide approaches a group of American visitors asking if they want a ride in his horse and carriage - they decline.

"Things are slow, people just walk around the shops and are not even buying anything," the guide says, shrugging his shoulders.

The effects of the global financial crisis have hit the tourism industry hard and no more so than here in the Bahamas, where the economic slowdown has also made immigration a big issue.

Disparity of wealth

The Bahamas are a collection of some 700 islands that lie only 80 km (50 miles) away from the US mainland, with Florida to the north, stretching all the way south to just off the coast of Haiti.

It is one of the wealthiest of Caribbean nations but its neighbour - Haiti - is the complete opposite. More than half of the nine million people who live there have to survive on less than half a dollar a day.

GNI - $14,920
Life expectancy - 71 (men), 76 (women
Haiti: GNI - $560
Life expectancy - 59 (men), 63 (women)

Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere and poverty drives many people to pack their bags and head for new shores.

Passage on an overcrowded wooden boat out of Haiti can cost upwards of $500 (£300). A better life in the US is what most are after but landing in the Bahamas is, for many, just as good an option.

The Bahamas have a population of around 350,000 people, covering 23 inhabited islands, It is estimated that up to 80,000 Haitians now live here.

National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest says the country has benefited greatly from Haitian workers in the past, but is now feeling the strain.

"Haitian nationals have contributed greatly to the development of the Bahamas over the years, but the numbers here now are overwhelming and when we talk about healthcare, education and social services... the strain on our resources... has become extreme," Mr Turnquest said.

Human trafficking

One of the oldest boats in the fleet of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force is the Inagua. Purchased from the British after the demise of colonial rule, the vessel is now part of a patrol that covers 25,900 sq km of territorial waters looking for illegal immigrants.

Commodore Clifford Scavella, head of the Bahamas armed forces, says those seeking to come here illegally have many options.

I say 50% [of Bahamians] are good... they help us to survive but they should treat us as human.
Haitian immigrant

"On the water there are so many corridors that smugglers can use.

"We are finding more and more that they are using alternative [routes] so we need to spread our assets as wide as we can, we are seeking government help as we continue the fight," he says.

The government repatriates hundreds of migrants, with local newspapers reporting regularly on how much this is costing the Bahamas.

Authorities also try to intercept people arriving by sea, but not every one makes it that far.

The Queen of Peace is the main Roman Catholic church for the Haitian community in Nassau.

On Saturday nights the sound of the choir singing in French Creole, practising ahead of the morning's Sunday service, can be heard far and wide.

Religion is a key part of Haitian life and Father Roland Gilfort has heard countless stories about the hundreds of illegal migrants who go missing every year.

"In the last three months we have had more than 100 people die at sea, we try to protect them, tell them not to come, but you know what?

"All they see when they are in Haiti is the profits. They are risking their lives because they see a neighbour getting a house after two years and they want to be like their neighbour," says Father Roland.

Growing underclass

The history of immigration from Haiti to the Bahamas stretches back to the late 1950s, with Haitians taking jobs that many in the Bahamas simply did not want.

Labouring, gardening and construction work saw large numbers given work permits.

Many Haitians have spent most of their lives in the Bahamas, yet they now fear losing their resident status and of possibly being deported.

An estimated 300 Haitian illegal migrants run aground at Flamingo Cay, Bahamas (Archive)
While many make it to shore, hundreds of Haitians disappear at sea each year

Tony is typical of the Haitian mentality here. He is grateful for the opportunities but says he feels many of his countrymen are seen as an underclass.

"I say 50% [of Bahamians] are good... they accept us, I will not take that from them and without the Bahamas [many] Haitians would be dead.

"They help us to survive but they should treat us as human," Tony said.

Amnesty International has reported cases of human rights abuses against Haitians on the island.

The government says such violations are rare and are not tolerated.

However, many in the Bahamas feel their culture is being eroded and want stricter controls on immigration.

"They [the Haitians] have got to recognise that they are in a country that has given them a future and not to strip it like they did in Haiti," a local taxi driver said.

Another Bahaman woman put it more bluntly: "We need our country back, if they came here to get a better life why not go back home and make a better life [there]."

Despite such feelings, the Bahamas Minister of Immigration, Branville McCartney, says his country would not be the success it is today without the help of the local Haitian population.

He admits the government has had to get tough on illegal immigrants and it has led to resentment on both sides.

"People who are here illegally are working... for less pay and we have Bahamians who have no jobs, that breeds animosity.

"When it comes down to healthcare, many people in the hospitals are not from the Bahamas, that too can cause problems," Mr McCartney said.

However, there is also a generation living in the Bahamas, young people born of Haitian parents, who due to current laws have not got an automatic right to citizenship.

Immigration rules say they have to apply between the ages of 18 to 19, and it is a process that can be drawn out over a number of years, making it difficult for many to gain employment, travel or even open a bank account.

Essentially, these people become virtually stateless in their own country of birth.

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