NASSAU, BAHAMAS — While Hurricane Dorian victims will be able to get their government documents reissued at no cost, Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson warned anyone trying to commit fraud: “we will keep you”.
In an interview with Eyewitness News, Johnson said the government will table an order in Parliament to provide assistance to storm victims and expedite the documentation process.
“I want to underscore that all persons who have lost their documents during the storm, you will see when we open Parliament to lay an order [that] the government has taken the decision to provide those documents for that stated period, free of charge, without cost,” he said.
“…I’m saying to persons that if you know you were not properly documented and you come to the immigration department trying to commit fraud on the system, we will keep you.
“We don’t care about your age or your ethnicity; you will stay there with us and you will be charged.”
Johnson’s comments follow a government statement announcing the temporary suspension of immigration enforcement in storm-ravaged areas had come to an end.
In the days immediately following the Category 5 hurricane, Johnson told reporters outside Cabinet migrants in the affected areas – the Abacos, Freeport and East Grand Bahama would not be targeted.
However, Johnson suggested last week this stance had shifted and doubled down in an interview on Monday, warning victims without legal status that they are “not safe”.
“Hurricane Dorian did not work a miracle,” he said.
“It did not miraculously change your status. If you were not properly regulated in this country, pursuant to the immigration laws before the hurricane, despite the fact that you went through the hurricane, that did not regularize you and the shelter does not do that for you either.”
Hurricane Dorian battered Grand Bahama and Abaco for three days, leaving thousands displaced and hundreds missing. The death toll continues to climb.
The storm decimated The Mudd and The Peas, two of six shantytowns on Abaco and the largest
in the country.
The preliminary Abaco Shantytown Assessment Report, 2018, estimated the total population for the six communities at 3,581.
Of those residents, the report noted that 20 percent were undocumented at the time.
However, 70 percent of respondents in South Abaco shantytowns — including The Mudd, The Peas and Sandbanks – identified themselves as undocumented.
When asked about the contradiction of his earlier comments over repatriation efforts, Johnson explained: “When persons came off the island, we knew full well that they required medical attention. Persons were traumatized and so we had the international communities and the local persons in [the shelters], social services, providing certain assistance and the last thing we wanted to happen was that a woman and child and/or man would refuse to come forward and receive this assistance because they were concerned about their status, and so that was one of the reasons.
Johnson continued: “But we are no longer facing the horrors of Hurricane Dorian. We are now in the reconstruction and rehabilitation stage. And we made it clear that the shelters would not be used as a means to circumvent the law, and so we are saying, again as I said, the laws have to be applied.”
The immigration minister noted while checks will not take place inside the shelters, people ought to be mindful that as they leave those sites, immigration officers will be conducting checks throughout the country.
“At this point, there’s not that intention to do that (go into shelters), but I know that persons are now leaving the shelters,” Johnson said.
“At some stage, people stroll out to leave and we will do [checks]. We will do road checks. We will be checking the mail boats. Our people are on the ground in Freeport and in Abaco. We are doing our intelligence work and so that’s what we’re doing.”
Work permits non-transferable
As many businesses reckon with the decision to re-open or close their doors in affected areas, the immigration minister also proffered a warning to Bahamians who employ or harbor unregulated individuals.
“We are warning Bahamians that there is a law, Section 47 of the Immigration Act speaks to harboring or giving shelter to persons who are not properly documented or who may not be legally here in The Bahamas and there’s a fine of up to $10,000 or up to five years imprisonment,” Johnson said.
“We are saying to employers that work permits are non-transferable and if someone no longer works for someone, you have to go back to the immigration department and have those work permits reissued, and we are asking persons to abide by the law.
“We fully appreciate that a lot of what we are experiencing has been lost on us by sometimes I think the Bahamians public’s failure to comply with the law.
“I don’t want persons to get the impression that we have suspended this activity in the country in terms of enforcing. The immigration director has been given strict instructions to apply the same, without fear, favor or ill will.”
Of those residents in shantytowns on Abaco, 41.1 percent reported work permits as the legal ground for being in The Bahamas.
Johnson added: “At some point those shelters will be closed and persons who are not here (legally) they will be dealt with.
“If you feel as if you have a right to apply for some status then make those applications. But if this is the first-time application that you should make, you will have to make that from your country of origin.”