All tested negative for COVID-19
Rights Bahamas says raid will deter sick migrants from seeking care
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Immigration officers arrested 109 people during the raid of a church in Marsh Harbour, Abaco, that had previously been used to shelter displaced Hurricane Dorian victims.
A group of 102 men and seven women were arrested for squatting at the AB Apostolic Church early Saturday morning.
According to Director of Immigration Clarence Russell, the church was being used as a place of residence by area residents, without the permission of the church’s trustees.
He said there were grave concerns about emergency COVID-19 measures being adhered to, namely social distancing and proper hygiene and sanitation practices, as well as adherence to the 24-hour curfew.
The large group was tested and had negative results for the virus, according to Russell.
As Hurricane Dorian pounded the island in early September, scores of displaced shantytown residents fled to churches like AB Apostolic and New International Gospel Mission in Marsh Harbour.
Both churches were battered by the Category 5 storm, but continued to provide shelter for storm victims.
By the end of October, immigration officials had issued warnings to church dwellers to leave the property.
The following month, Russell said the department had credible information that churches and other dwellings in Abaco were being used as safe havens for undocumented migrants.
Yesterday, Rights Bahamas President Stephanie St Fleur acknowledged the need to clamp down on individuals not adhering to social distancing and other COVID-19 emergency measures.
However, she expressed concern the raid could deter vulnerable migrant communities from seeking medical attention.
“My fear from all of this — you know we met with the [health] minister and he said that it doesn’t matter a person’s status and whether they have status or not, if they sick they are to call the numbers to come in to seek assistance,” she told Eyewitness News.
“Now, if immigration is going around doing this during this crucial time they are going to cause a setback, and I think people are going to fear that immigration, regardless of what is going on right now, they’re still rounding up people.
St Fleur said: “It is not what you do, when you do it, and how you do it — it is not the time to have people who are already living in fear to be fearful that ‘I’m sick and I might have COVID-19 and I all the symptoms, but now we see immigration still rounding up people’. You’re going to put these people in fear and they are not going to want to seek help.”
Last week, leaders of the Haitian community expressed support for the government’s fight to prevent the local spread of COVID-19.
They urged Haitians in The Bahamas to present themselves to healthcare providers if they get sick, regardless of their status, saying they “should have no fear”.
Yesterday, St Fleur said she has received some information about the people residing at the church, and believe the vast majority of them were displaced from the storm and homeless.
She expressed concerns about the large group at the church being able to maintain social distancing protocols and proper hygiene, noting there is one bathroom in the church being shared by the large number of people.
“Whatever conditions they met them in, that’s the conditions they have been living in trying to survive, and get their lives back to together post-Dorian,” she said.
“That’s number one. I have a volunteer who actually went in that area. He said it is everything but a church right now.
“With immigration going there; I hope they actually went there to remove them to put them in an area where they can social distance from each other.
“And I would hope that for those that they left there, they stressed the importance to them on why it is so important right now to follow the Ministry of Health’s guidelines on social distancing and proper hygiene.”
Of the group arrested, three Bahamians were released with stern warnings, Russell said.
Thirty-one people had valid permits and were released with a warning.
Another six people had valid permit extensions and will be released, officials said.
Thirty-five people were found to be illegally residing in The Bahamas and were expected to be charged.
Fourteen people, who claimed to be Bahamian citizens, were required to produce valid documentation or face prosecution; nine people had expired permits and will be charged.
For those who were released with a warning, St Fleur asked yesterday where they will seek safe shelter.