by Larry Smith
"If it was up to me I'd toss two stick a dynamite in erry one a dem dingy damned 'villages'. How is it that these ILLEGAL ALIENS can come in any time they wish and toss up a 'house' with no proper facilities to speak of and the relevant ministry folk say and do nothing. But when the average hard working Joe Blow tries to put down something, God help ya if you missin' some papers cuz dey ga have da buldozer there the next day." -- commentator on Bahamas Issues
That quote reflects the feelings of many Bahamians. But the deeper we delve into the so-called 'Haitian problem', the more we come face to face with ourselves. The squatter settlements that give rise to so much public angst are a clear example of the alternate reality that many Bahamians live in, and we are not the only ones grappling with these issues.
"Squatter settlements are all over Jamaica," according to Gleaner columnist Victor Cummings, "on hillsides, roadsides, gully banks, inner-city areas, government land, and private land. The squatting problem is not only seriously affecting the physical development of our country, but also our economic and social stability."
There are over 700 squatter sites in Jamaica with well over half a million residents, Trinidad and Tobago has 300 squatter settlements, with more than 400,000 residents. Guyana has over 200, and in St Lucia squatter settlements are a feature of all major towns and villages.
The 38 squatter settlements on New Providence include 940 houses out of a total housing stock on the island of some 70,000. According to a 2010 government survey, many of these illegal villages are on private land and they have grown by about 200 houses since the Christie administration looked at the problem in the early 2000s.
We face the same choices here in the Bahamas. Almost a decade ago the Department of Physical Planning surveyed a dozen squatter settlements and produced a position paper seeking Cabinet support to develop a national policy framework that could address the complex issues involved.
Those issues include substandard housing, unsafe living conditions, illegal land occupation, theft of utilities, serious public health risks, and environmental pollution. The position paper called for a coordinating unit within the government to tackle the problem in the short term while consultants were recruited to develop an overall policy framework.
The preferred approach was to resettle squatters on Crown land and finance the construction of properly serviced low-cost rental housing. The coordinating unit would also manage a communications programme to educate the public about the issues and the best ways to address them.
Sporadic attempts have been made to deal with this problem over the years. In 1995 the former FNM government set up a short-lived task force to demolish illegal housing and relocate some squatters. In 2002 the new PLP government focused briefly on the "urgent need" to relocate squatters. But according to the position paper, "squatter settlement issues continued to escalate."
The document pointed to "a lack of monitoring, policing, policy and funding", arguing that only coordinated government action within a comprehensive policy framework would have a chance of producing a workable solution. It said squatters were mainly Bahamians and persons of Haitian descent, paying rent to Bahamian slumlords.
In the early 2000s the situation was regarded as serious enough to warrant the attention of the highest levels of government. The experts said it required a comprehensive strategy incorporating legislation, planning controls, enforcement measures, public awareness programmes, improvement of housing standards, and the prevention of new settlements.
But as we said, nothing was done and settlements have only expanded since then. The problems are largely ignored until an event like the recent Mackey Yard fire brings them to the forefront. Unfortunately, as Housing Minister Ken Russell acknowledged recently, addressing these matters is complicated by the fact that the term "squatter" is now synonymous with "illegal immigrant" in the minds of many Bahamians.
According to Russell, the government is "seeking to do away with the unhygienic and lawless conditions which exist at these sites, which impact neighboring communities, and which have engendered so many demands for action." But public outrage is very often not based on reality.
In the case of Mackey Yard, for example, a Bahamian had leased Crown land and set himself up as a slumlord, fulfilling an unmet market need. Since the fire, the government has cleaned and regularized this tract of land as a 52-lot subdivision for sale to qualified Bahamians at low cost. But since most people living there were non-Bahamian renters, the lots are also being offered to hundreds of Bahamians on the Ministry of Housing's waiting list.
The reality is that squatters include indigenous Bahamians, Haitian-Bahamians, immigrants with work permits and illegal immigrants. But these one-dimensional labels merely mask the complexity of the problem, as the following three examples illustrate.
A 2003 news report on squatters focused on a young man who, although born here, was not a Bahamian because his parents are Haitians. He had never been to Haiti, and though he had applied three times for Bahamian citizenship and spent about $4,500 on paperwork and lawyers, he had nothing to show for his efforts.
A friend of mine knows of a "true-blood Bahamian" who works as a messenger and had a daughter with a Haitian woman. "The daughter was educated here and is hardworking, but has no status. She is confined to the fringes of society because her father can't be bothered to help her get regularized."
Then there is the Haitian who has worked here for years and become a permanent resident. "He has several children," my friend told me. "One son is here on a work permit, a second son went to R M Bailey and appears to be a Bahamian, and a third son just arrived from Haiti and can't speak English. The second son is intelligent and well-educated, but has no status and is very angry about it."
These examples put a human face on the problem, and we can multiply them many times throughout our society. The root question is, how do we deal with them? One answer is to deport immigrant children who are born and raised here. Another is to regularize them to become productive members of our society.
The other key point to bear in mind is that squatting is often the only option for low-income people with no collateral or savings who subsist on temporary jobs. They can't afford the cost of land or housing, so they are forced to rely on irregular arrangements facilitated by Bahamians.
Squatter settlements are the inevitable result. But insiders say the Mackey Yard redevelopment can serve as a template to deal with the issue going forward.
"The government will clean, repossess and regularize the land for legitimate claimants while providing basic services. Haitian-Bahamians with status can buy government housing or land. Haitians on permits will have to be accommodated in rental housing. And illegals must continue to be deported. We must also do a much better job of enforcing minimum housing standards."
Unfortunately, as we noted in a previous column, the thing that is most lacking is hard information. No government has attempted to explain the scope and depth of the problem to the electorate in a comprehensive and forthright manner, with all the facts and figures on the table to back that explanation up. There is a tendency to avoid what is seen as a hugely divisive and incendiary issue.
And no government has had the gumption to formulate a comprehensive national policy based on public consultation and expert input that can adequately deal with the issues.
This vacuum allows hatred and fear to flourish, fueled by ignorance and misunderstanding. Demagogues have no qualms about tackling these matters in a factless environment. It is up to more responsible political and social leaders to create a framework for rational discussion.