Minister unaware of officers instructing storm victims to leave churches
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Minister of Immigration Elsworth Johnson said yesterday that churches in storm-ravaged Abaco and Grand Bahama cannot be used as “means to circumvent the law” under the guise of shelters, though he was not aware of immigration officers targeting them.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, scores of residents fled to AB Apostolic and New International Gospel Mission in Marsh Harbour.
Both churches were battered by the Category 5 storm, but continue to provide shelter for displaced storm victims.
There have been claims immigration officers approached occupants and instructed them to leave by Friday.
Speaking to Eyewitness News Online, Johnson said while it has been policy to respect the churches in terms of our enforcement, immigration officers have an interest in visiting those locations to ensure the church is “fit and proper” for human habitation, and to verify people are not breaking the law.
“To the extent that they (officers) are going; I am not aware of that. Let me check that out,” Johnson told Eyewitness News Online.
“Immigration officers understand and know they must perform their duties without fear, favour, affection or ill-will.
“I have heard about purported shelters in Abaco. The question is whether or not those shelters are shelters which the Disaster Preparedness Act refers to under section 10, which I think the act allows the authority to identify such places as shelters and there is a reason for that: so that those places could be secure for persons entering them.
“Now, there has always been the policy that we respect the churches in terms of our enforcement, but the church under any organization cannot be used as a means to circumvent the law. Immigration officers understand what the policy of immigration is and that is by law, that we are governed by law; the rule of law; equality before the law; and in enforcing those laws we are to respect the dignity of the human person.”
AB has a water bladder that is monitored by non-governmental organization, and predominantly used for washing, Hank Russell, whose family founded AB, told Eyewitness News Online in Abaco last week.
Russell, 67, claimed immigration and defence force officers visited the church last Thursday.
Insisting the church was capable and purposed to accommodate people, Russell said: “Where are the people going? They are poor, and they lost everything they got. This isn’t government land. They have just as much right to stay here as anybody else, as far as I’m concerned.”
According to section 10 of the Disaster, Preparedness and Response Act, the director shall establish and maintain a list of premises available for and suitable for use as shelters during a threatened disaster alert or in the event of the aftermath of a disaster emergency.
Johnson acknowledged the need for sensitivity; however, he maintained the government cannot allow people to break the law by calling a place a shelter that “in law is not a shelter and has not been designated as a shelter by the act”.
“You identify them and there is a reason why you identify them because they must be a fit and proper locations for human habitation,” the minister said. “I am not saying those places aren’t. Normally, they select a manager that is responsible for law and order and the proper running of the facility. We must ensure first that these places where persons are purporting to go are actually shelters and persons aren’t passing them off as shelters.”
He added: “But, in so doing, there is a level of sensitivity, there is a level of humanity and there is a level of respect that is to be shown to everybody in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. That is to be adhered to.”
As pointed out by Johnson, there are currently five designated shelters in operation in New Providence and accommodating nearly 800 people.
The residents in churches in Abaco Eyewitness News Online spoke to recently expressed the desire to remain on the island.