Mitchell Addresses the OAS on matters of New Immigration Policy -
Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin,
Let me first thank the Secretary General and you Assistant Secretary General for all the courtesies extended to me during this visit.
As both the Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General are expected to demit office within the coming months, this may be the last formal opportunity I have to thank you for the service which you have both given to this organization. The Bahamas thanks you for your leadership.
I wish also to publicly acknowledge the work of the delegations of fellow Caricom countries in making this visit possible.
I want to congratulate the Commonwealth of Dominica and its Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit on the recent general election on 8th December. I want to congratulate the President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff who will be sworn in for her second term on 1st January. I wish to acknowledge the work of the Prime Minister of Haiti Laurent Lamothe who has announced his resignation from office. Please convey to them all our warm felicitations.
On behalf of Prime Minister Perry Christie, the government and Peoples of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, I appear here today to deal with a serious matter: the reputation of The Bahamas. Nothing is more important to us than that in the international arena, whether in the hemisphere or in the sub region or around the world. Reputation is everything. The respect which we have around the world, depends upon our reputation.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, he writes: But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.
My nation of less than 400,000 souls thrives off its reputation. Tourism is our main business. People come to The Bahamas as tourists because they believe and perceive that it is better in The Bahamas, and it is.
As I have represented my country in countries around the world, far from our shores or near to our shores, when I mention that I from The Bahamas, the response is “ Ah ha! The Bahamas”.
One Customs and Border control officer at the New York airport once said to me: “ Why are you looking sad, you live in Paradise.”
The Bahamas is paradise and we work very hard to maintain that reputation.
Thousands of business people and non- Bahamian residents live in our country because it has a stellar reputation as a safe place for investment and wealth management: a well regulated, transparent jurisdiction.
What we know however is that we must be eternally vigilant in protecting our reputation: correcting untruths and misperceptions where they exist and of course ensuring that within our borders and in our external relations we so conduct ourselves that we to the extent that our resources permit adhere to the highest standards and best practices as set by the international community.
I am here today to reaffirm our commitment to the principles of the rule of law, due process, the international treaties on migration and all the instruments to which we adhere in the Inter-American system.
Please be assured of that.
This assurance goes out to friend and foe alike and has become necessary because of the misinformation that has been circulated by two innocuous administrative measures that were announced by The Bahamas, which took effect on 1st November 2014.
The policies were contained in a one page document which advised the public that work permit applications would not be accepted for those people who did not have legal status in The Bahamas without them first being certified as being seen by one of our consular officers in their home country or in the nearest office to their home country.
The second was that all non-nationals who live in The Bahamas would have to get and hold the passport of their nationality and obtain a residency permit, which would be evidence that they have the right to live and work in The Bahamas.
These policies should not have been a surprise to anyone. The political party to which I belong announced that we would be perusing immigration reforms prior to our election to office in 2012.
We announced that changes were coming in policies in the first budget debate following the general election in 2012.
We announced in the budget debate of 2014 that changes were coming including specifically that there would be a requirement for the passport of the nationality of the individual.
On 28th July on an official visit of the President of Haiti to The Bahamas, we advised the Haitian government that we proposed to do so and sought their advice on whether they could meet the expected demand for passports at their embassy. The President indicated that they could.
This was followed up with a similar exchange at the margins of the United Nations in September with the Foreign Minister of Haiti, my distinguished colleague.
We have since spoken with the Minister in the margins of the summit in Havana Cuba last week and the Haitian government has indicated that they will take measures to meet the
demand. I thank them.
In our conversations with the International Organization for Migration, we have sought assistance for capacity building in Haiti to solve any possible this problem in that regard.
The narrative I have just unfolded is given for two reasons. First, to emphasize that this should not have been a surprise to anyone.
Secondly, to show that in planning and executing these policies we consulted with all of the stakeholders in the country on whom there may have impacts.
We met with leaders of Haitians in The Bahamas.
The Department of Immigration which is charged with the responsibility for executing these policies has an enforcement unit. Each day, they go out and do immigration checks. The press both at home and abroad keep referring to these as round ups or raids. There are no round ups in The Bahamas. Round ups are for cattle not people. Words make a difference.
On 1st November, they did what they usually do and in the course of one of these checks, parents abandoned their children and left the children unaccompanied in their homes. This was later borne out by the parent in the press who indicated that he ran and told the children do not to open the door.
The constitution of our country empowers officers to arrest people who are committing offences on the following standard: a reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed.
Officers are briefed on that standard and reminded of their responsibility in law to treat everyone with respect and with dignity and to afford everyone due process. So far as I am aware they have stuck to that standard. The government does not sanction any deviation from that standard.
The International Human Rights Commission is invited along with the Organization for American States to come at any time and inspect our procedures and facilities and see whether what we are saying is correct. We are open and transparent and have absolutely nothing to hide. Where there are shortfalls, we are committed to ensuring that those are corrected.
Why does the openness and transparency and our support of an open and transparent process become important?
There are three allegations that have been made that bear addressing in this forum which go to the heart of the matter: our country’s reputation:
There is a Queen’s Counsel in the Bahamas who heads a human rights organization which is connected around the world and whose allegations have made headlines in the hemisphere and around the world. The specific charges must be refuted:
He has accused the government of: “institutional terrorism”; then “ ethnic cleansing”; then “ running Auschwitz in The Bahamas”, referring to the Carmichael Road Detention Centre. The latter statement alleged in particular that this minister was responsible for Auschwitz in The Bahamas.
Madame Chair, words have meanings and when a Queen’s Counsel makes such a statement he must be put to proof. Certainly the government of The Bahamas is bound to respond.
Let me be clear: there is no institutional terrorism, no ethnic cleansings, no Auschwitz in The Bahamas. No group is being targeted for elimination in The Bahamas, no mass murder is occurring in The Bahamas and certainly none which is sponsored or sanctioned by the state. There is no evidence anywhere that this is the case and we refute it absolutely. We once again repeat the invitation to the human rights bodies to inspect at any time and without notice.
The fact is the United Nations Human Rights Commission has a representative in The Bahamas and they have been to the detention centre and can say whether or not we are operating gas chambers and engaging in mass murder in the Carmichael Road Detention Centre.
The remarks are so outrageous and absolutely irresponsible and I condemn without reservation.
In that unfortunate gentleman’s latest press statement, he has indicated that he will bring his complaints to the OAS. We will meet him head on and we stand here unflinching in the face of these spurious allegations.
Next I would wish to address why the policies have become necessary.
First with regard to work permits. We sought by the policy to address two issues:
The message going out to source countries that all you have to do is make your way to The Bahamas and get a friendly employer who gets you a work permit then you are good to go.
This was driving illegal migration. The policy is intended to put a stop to it.
On the question of passports and a residency permit. The constitution of The Bahamas from 1973 does not grant citizenship to people born in The Bahamas at birth unless your parents are Bahamian. Unfortunately for many, they chose not at birth to get the passport of their nationality or a residency stamp and live in a kind of no man’s land until they reach their 18th birthday. It is at that time that the constitution says that you can apply for citizenship of the Bahamas but before your 19th birthday.
The new procedures are meant to solve that problem. This will now mean that so long as your parents are lawfully in The Bahamas, anyone who is born in The Bahamas can get a residency permit to work and live in The Bahamas until such time as their citizenship applications are determined. This puts all in this class in a better position.
I need to add that holding the passport of the nationality does not prejudice the right under the constitution to apply for citizenship. Also in most cases where citizenship is not granted, the applicant receives permanent residence with the right to work.
Many people in that class have been using a Certificate of Identity document instead of the passport of their nationality. That document does not evidence permission to be in The Bahamas and so all official acts like opening a bank account or getting a driver’s license are off limits to those people who rely on that document. With this new residence certificate to be known as a Belonger’s Permit, this problem is resolved.
This policy, therefore, is not about revoking anyone’s citizenship. No one’s rights are being taken away ex post facto. This is about ensuring that the rights of people are protected.
What confounds us is how such an innocuous policy has suddenly become such a bête noir around the hemisphere.
What has not helped is the irresponsible statements of a Florida legislator who has spread much of the misinformation about this, on the basis that she is concerned about the children of migrants.
The rule Madam Chair is when an illegal migrant is repatriated to their home country, the children must go with their parents. That is the accepted practice around the world and we do not deviate from it.
There has been criticism at home and abroad about keeping children in the detention centre. The Prime Minister has instructed that we find a suitable facility for alternative arrangements and the Department of Social Services has spoken to the Catholic Church and the Church of God in The Bahamas with the view to identifying such a facility.
I was informed today that plans have been settled for the facility to house children away from the Detention Centre.
Now to the question of resources.
You can imagine that this costs The Bahamas millions of dollars per year. Money which we can scarcely afford. Repatriation alone costs us some 1.5 million dollars per year.
We would wish source countries to do all that they can to stop the flow of migrants. At one point in October of this year we had three days of arrivals of one hundreds of people per day on rickety boats. We know that people have died making these journeys.
I pointed out to the Haitian Foreign Minister an article which appeared in The Miami Herald of an interview with men on the street in the Isle de La Tortue. In it they said that the poverty was so extreme and they had no work that boats were being built to set off to The Bahamas and to the United States.
The distinguished Permanent Representative for Haiti indicated yesterday that this matter was referred to their Minister of Justice and they can find no evidence of the boats being built to set off for The Bahamas. We must however be eternally vigilant.
The International Organization For Migration ( IOM) has indicated that it appears that those who come to our country are mainly headed to the United States and their stay in The Bahamas is mainly temporary or preliminary to going to the United States.
What this means is that this is a multinational problem and all countries in our sub region: Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the United States must work to solve the more deep seated issues connected with this matter, that of poverty, underdevelopment and political instability.
So Madam Chair, The Bahamas comes today to set the record straight on this matter and we trust that we have disabused all countries of the notion that anything untoward is happening with the issues of migrants.
We have struggled with this problem for centuries.
We will continue to manage the problem consistent with our international obligations and with our laws.
The challenges from excessive regular migration
While the challenges of irregular migration and benefits of regular migration in the Americas are clear, perhaps more important as a discussion focus for this forum, and less discussed generally nowadays, is the contemporary phenomenon of brain drain and its associated negative externalities. It has become taboo in some corners to speak of the negative impact of brain drain on the developing world, however, the ongoing deleterious impacts, particularly on small developing countries, is also abundantly clear. This is the other excess that we as a region must contend with.
As a region, the Caribbean, more than any other area, continues to lose a significant percentage of educated labour and labour force in general. The reason that brain drain is such a problem for the Caribbean is because of the high proportion of skilled immigrants which migrate, representing between 60 to 90% of skilled population in most countries of the region. The cumulative effect of loss of the ‘best and brightest’ has the potential to further exacerbate existing levels of poverty and inequality in society in home countries.
Additionally, for many of our countries, the brain drain also signifies lost social investment which can come in the form of government investments into health care and education through the provision of primary and secondary schooling and tertiary funding, and these prior social investments form a considerable as a percentage of GDP in many Caribbean countries.
To further compound the impacts of brain drain, beyond the lost investments in previous training, many of the skilled professionals that leave, such as nurses, doctors, teachers and engineers, remain under supplied in Caribbean.
So here, as with the challenge of irregular migration, there is a need to focus on long-term drivers and push factors, on diminishing the hallmarks of often uneven and under – development, which continue to plague our Member States and which provide catalysts for migration. In order to ensure more retention of top human capital and attraction of those aboard back home, our Governments must redouble efforts at bolstering development particularly with a view to providing access to local tertiary education facilities, economies that provide sustained and diverse job opportunities and safe and vibrant communities in which citizens can live.
Contemporary migration is a complex phenomenon that involves consideration of the individual’s, origin and destination country interests. While, today it seems that much of the gains from hemispheric talent are skewed towards the developed countries of the hemisphere, it is we as origin countries who must take up the mantle of solving our own problems and work to ensure that our economies and societies are competitive given the global reality of today.
The OAS and migration
Here the OAS has a key role to play in helping Member States, particularly developing States, through helping to promulgate policies that enhance the natural synergies between migration and development, diminishing excesses from regular and irregular migration that place a drag on development, particularly for small states, and focusing on ameliorating root causes which contribute to irregular migration and brain drain.
Madame Chair, The OAS has a legacy and comparative advantage through the Universal Civil Identity Project of the America and its projects, particularly, those involving civil identity initiatives.
All pillars of the OAS are relevant to meeting the negative challenges associated with hemispheric migration however; assistance in the areas of democracy, human rights and citizen security all help states continue to work in a holistic manner to resolve issues that might spur migration beyond the search for job opportunity or educational advancement prospects.
As I indicated at the outset, migration in search of better opportunity is a natural human instinct. Human capital, as any capital, tends to flow to where it can be maximized and optimally used.
Notwithstanding the naturalness of the instinct to seek out better opportunities, as with the imperative of States to manage regular immigration in order to maintain territorial integrity, there are imperatives on States to get a handle on migration of nationals, particularly skilled migration, to limit any negative impacts on development. It is this imperative that we as a hemisphere must more seriously address in order to ensure a future of sustainable development across the continent.
The true developmental charge of the Americas for the next decade is that we must work in our Countries, collectively and through the OAS to gradually change the calculus which has spawned irregular migration and the brain drain so that there is more equitable and synergistic benefit from the vast human capital of the Americas going forward.
The OAS we want
My Country looks forward to working with the OAS to meeting the challenges posed by migration, both regular and irregular, in the Americas.
We standing willing to host a conference of interested states in the hemisphere and sub region on this issue.
Madame Chair, in 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of leading my country’s delegation to RIO De Janeiro, Brazil for the RIO +20 Conference. I am reminded that the negotiated outcome document was so adequately entitled “The Future We Want”.
Keeping that theme in mind, The Bahamas also looks forward to working with other Member States to continue to shape the OAS we all want.
As our hemisphere prepares for the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama, The Bahamas joins those who express hope that Cuba will join us around that table so that at the highest levels of discussion we will finally truly engage the full family of the Americas.
I note the upcoming elections of the Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General, and I remain hopeful that in my lifetime this Organization can be led by a Secretary General from CARICOM, certainly an achievement for the Organization which is past due, and a ceiling which must be broken.
As the Organization embarks on management modernization, enhancing fiscal governance and general standards reform, The Bahamas remains committed to supporting this process so that our Organization continues to strive to meet international standards and expectations and so that this forum can remain the political forum par-excellence that it is and will continue to match the dynamism of the hemisphere it seeks to shape.
In parting, I take this opportunity to extend best wishes to all for a safe and festive season.
Madame Chair, Members.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, he writes: But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.
The Bahamas stands by its good name.
I thank you very much indeed.
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