by Larry Smith
In the wake of the most recent shanty town fire (off Joe Farrington Road) we witnessed yet another impassioned outpouring of Bahamian angst - on the air waves, across social media land and around lunch tables and water coolers.
These feelings are encapsulated in a single Facebook comment: "Haitians are having children by the dozen. At this rate we will become a minority in short order."
And this is not just street-level hyperbole, even level-headed talk show hosts like Jeff Lloyd, a lawyer and a deacon, articulate the same fear.
"There is a good possibility that within one generation you won't be able to find a large population of indigenous Bahamians," he thundered on one show last week.
Well, let's look art the figures.
Out of our total population of 351,000 there were about 290,000 Bahamians according to the 2010 census. In other words, the Department of Statistics counted 61,000 non-Bahamians living here. That number includes 5600 North Americans, 1700 South Americans, 1700 Asians, over 5,000 Jamaicans and about 3600 Europeans of all nationalities.
But most of the non-Bahamians were, of course, Haitians - some 39,000 in fact, or 11 per cent of the total population.
Over the past decade our total population grew by about 16.5 per cent, or 50,000, while the declared Haitian population grew from 21,000 to 39,000 - a more than 40 per cent increase. However, in 2005 using a variety of methods, the International Office of Migration estimated an actual population range for the Haitian community of 30-60,000.
Every time something happens that focuses our attention on Haitian immigration there is an outpouring of fear and loathing, but rarely is there any attempt to clarify the issues.
But most Bahamians would never know this report existed.
Haitian communities are concentrated on islands where low-wage jobs are abundant - New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco and Eleuthera. And illegal shanty towns are one face of the problem, justifiably drawing the ire of all levels of society.
According to Jeff Lloyd, these unregulated settlements "flaunt our laws with wanton disregard yet they continue to prosper… and you will be shocked to know who owns the shanty land. The government knows exactly who they are and they are protected."
Indeed. According to government officials, about a quarter of the residents of these illegal settlements are in fact Bahamians, and many more are documented migrants who pay rent to Bahamian slumlords. Most of the shanty towns are on government land that is leased to Bahamians, ostensibly for farming.
Several efforts have been made to deal with shanty towns over the years. In 1995 the first FNM government set up a short-lived task force to demolish illegal housing and relocate some squatters. In 2002 the PLP government focused briefly on the "urgent need" to relocate squatters.
Back then 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.
That report touched on all of the issues we are so justifiably outraged about today - substandard housing, unsafe living conditions, illegal land occupation, theft of utilities, serious public health risks and environmental pollution.
In 2004 surveyors identified 30 squatter settlements on New Providence (containing at least one house) with a total of 722 houses, producing a population of over 4,000.
By 2010 - at the time of the Mackey Yard fire - it was time for another survey. By then some of the smaller settlements had disappeared, but there were still 26 active communities (some with one, two or three houses) for a total of 940 houses, and a population of more than 5,000.
Earlier this year the government undertook another survey - this time excluding settlements with less than 10 houses. The results identified a dozen shanty towns on New Providence with a total of 730 houses. An average of six people per house produced a population of over 4,000.
The upshot is that despite limited and sporadic attempts by successive governments to address the problem, the situation has not improved over many years. And this does not even consider the large illegal communities that exist on Abaco and other islands.
According to retired Assistant Commission of Police Paul Thompson, the only way to decisively deal with the problem is to execute a "planned attack on all shanty towns" by the police, immigration department and defence force, followed by "intensive interrogation" of immigrants and a crackdown on human trafficking.
The police apparently do not enter or attempt to regulate activities in these illegal communities, but Thompson says nothing prevents them from doing so. "Persons in these shanty towns are in contravention of planning laws, the building code, licensing laws and environmental regulations. Action can be taken without any directions from government, although appropriate notice must be given in cases of demolition."
As everyone knows, the health conditions observed in these squatter settlements are frightening. Government investigators have reported contaminated water, poor sanitation, animals raised in close proximity to people, numerous mosquito-breeding containers, improper garbage dumping, human feces in walkways, bushes and around animal pens, rodent infestations, and derelict vehicles.
Basically, the shanty towns are unregulated housing estates operated by Bahamians who make illicit profits. It is rather like the Numbers houses, which - despite the government's frequent pronouncements since the failed referendum and the Police Commissioner's statements to the contrary - appear to be operating as usual.
But what about the actual illegal migrants who live on the fringes of our society? Well, they are here because of the Bahamian demand for cheap labour, particularly in construction and farming. In short, they are here because we want them to be here. We are willing to employ them illegally and pay them low wages because they are outside the protection of the law.
As the IOM report said, "Raids on the Haitian community represent only one side of the enforcement necessary to stop the migration motor. Both supply and demand must be constrained if word is to get back to Haiti that it is no longer possible for illegal migrants to regularize their stay after they arrive."
The modern phase of Haitian immigration to the Bahamas began in the 1940s, when some 5,000 Bahamians were recruited to work in the US seasonally, replacing Americans fighting overseas. A Haitian consul was appointed in Nassau in 1948, as Haitians flocked to fill jobs left vacant by Bahamian migrants to the US. But Bahamian attitudes towards Haitians quickly hardened.
Sporadic round-ups and deportations began in the late 1950s. As we became more prosperous and conditions worsened in Haiti under the Duvalier dictatorship, the familiar pattern of thousands of Haitian boat people seeking a better life in the Bahamas took hold.
By 1960 the Tribune was referring to this influx as an "invasion". And by the 1970s the government was cracking down on illegal immigration, with systematic raids on Haitian communities and interception of Haitian sloops at sea. The government repatriates hundreds of illegals every year at significant cost.
Dawn Marshall, who published the first major study of "The Haitian Problem" in 1979 has long called for "an objective, evidence-based discussion", and the formulation of a comprehensive, non-partisan immigration policy that would "promote economic growth; establish reasonable criteria for the grant of permits and citizenship; and rely on procedures that are accountable and transparent."
Such a policy would address the two key immigration issues that we face: stabilising the size of the Haitian community, and integrating long-term Haitian residents into the mainstream of Bahamian society.
Despite the exaggerated fears of some Bahamians that Haitians are taking over our schools and hospitals, the fact is that we are creating a deprived underclass with the potential for serious adverse effects on the Bahamian population.
Fixing the shanty town problem is relatively easy to do if there is political will. Implementing a comprehensive and transparent immigration policy such as that described above seems beyond the capacity of any Bahamian government.