NASSAU, BAHAMAS- The International Organization for Migration says it will not be involved in forced repatriations in the wake of Hurricane Dorian despite a request from The Bahamas government.
The agency was reportedly invited by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis to observe the repatriation of “illegals”.
However, IOM team leader Jan-Willem Wegdam said vulnerable people – like those with chronic disease, pregnancy or disability – should not be removed from the country at this time regardless of their status.
Wegdam did not provide an ideal timeline for an amnesty period for migrant storm victims, but said the repatriation process was complicated and would need to involve all stakeholders to get it right.
He underscored the need for protections to ensure voluntary returns were truly voluntary, and that no one fell between the cracks given risks for statelessness.
Yesterday, officials reported there were 913 people living across nine shelters in New Providence, with a told of 4,309 people evacuated from devastated areas.
The IOM recently launched a $10m appeal to support operations in The Bahamas, establishing a presence on New Providence and hurricane-hit Abaco and Grand Bahama.
The appeal’s allocation for camp coordination and management covers efforts to assist government plans to establish a site for 2,000 people in Spring City, Abaco.
Its shelter allocation will assist families – who can return to their homes with small-scale repairs through the provision of cash and/or labor, technical advice and tool-kits.
Wegdam told Eyewitness News Online the agency believes the focus should be on delivering humanitarian assistance for people in need.
He pleaded with the government to “take some time” to ensure longstanding immigration challenges are addressed humanely.
“We believe that the focus should be on the humanitarian assistance and vulnerable individuals should ideally get a break from forced removal at least for now,” Wegdam said.
“So we plead to take some time in this. This situation has been developing for years and years regardless of the hurricane or not. This will not be solved in a few weeks so if the government wants to do it humanely, let’s take some time.”
Wegdam added: “IOM is willing to provide advice, to assist in voluntary returns but that will require some time and proper preparation for doing that.”
Wegdam said he met with Minnis and Ministers for Foreign Affairs, and Immigration last week.
Minnis also referred to a meeting with IOM in his address to parliament last Wednesday, where he warned “illegals” to leave or be forced to leave.
The IOM discourages the use of the term “illegal” to describe human beings because it feels the word contributes to “hysteria and xenophobia”.
IOM’s Regional Coordination Officer for the Caribbean Robert Natiello explained only actions could be deemed legal or illegal, adding preferred terms are irregular migratory status or undocumented migrant.
Wegdam continued: “If I use his wording, (Minnis) said, we have a law, the law is rather strict but it’s also very clear. If there are people that are here that are illegal we are going to follow it up. And people that don’t have the right documents or are illegal in whatever way then we are going to repatriate them to their country of origin.
“And he wanted us to know that,” Wegdam said.
“In addition he mentioned or asked if IOM would be – he wants to do that in a humane way and he would allow IOM to observe the process.Therefore I asked if you want us to do that, you will have to ask us that on paper, so I’m waiting for that.”
Wegdam said: “But the answer for IOM will always be that we will not be involved in that in any way. We will not be involved in any way in repatriations when they are forced by the government.”
Wegdam said the IOM hopes the government will conduct the process thoroughly, allowing for people with a right to “any type of status” to remain in the country.
“We hope that if for instance there are specific vulnerable individuals, regardless if they are legal or not, if they have the proper documentation or not, we would strongly recommend the government not to remove them at least for now,” he said.
“We don’t want someone who has a chronic disease or is disabled or is pregnant that this is being forcibly removed.
He added: “We hope that the government applies the rules that they have themselves and does it thoroughly and with an eye for detail.”
The IOM is an inter-governmental organization linked to the United Nations but it does not receive core funding. It works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners to promote humane and orderly migration management.
The Bahamas is one of 173 member states.