Health NGO calls situation on the ground a “ticking time bomb”
MARSH HARBOUR, ABACO – Amid claims the government’s “immigration crackdown” in Abaco has targeted churches sheltering storm victims, one major relief organization described conditions on the ground as a “ticking time bomb”.
Scores of people fled to AB Apostolic (AB) and New International Gospel Mission (IGM) in Marsh Harbour as the monster Category 5 storm ripped through communities during September 1-3.
Battered by hurricane-force winds and floodwaters, both churches continue to provide shelter for people displaced by Dorian; however, last week occupants were reportedly approached by immigration officers who ordered them to leave by Friday.
Amos Weatherford, longtime parishioner and nephew of IGM’s pastor, said the actions of immigration officers represent “the lowest of the low”.
“What aggravates me so much is the looters are stealing the town blind,” he said
“And now you got some old lady sitting in church cooking and you going to tell them you’re going to lock them up and send them to Nassau if they don’t leave the church.”
Weatherford, 42, said: “This the church they been going to for 30 years, since I been going from a little boy. That’s the lowest of the low, you can’t get lower than that. I understand going after illegal immigrants but there is a wrong way and a right way to do that.
“Today makes the third time they have been there,” he added.
At a meeting on Friday, international relief partners raised concerns enforcement activities have created barriers to access aid nearly two months after the deadly storm raked communities in Grand Bahama and Abaco, killing more than 60 people and displacing thousands.
Over the weekend, the Department of Immigration reported five Haitian men, and two Haitian women have been apprehended in Abaco, and three Haitian nationals – two women and one man – were apprehended in Grand Bahama.
The department noted a Haitian man and woman were arrested at the Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) for overstaying.
The man was headed to Abaco, and the woman had come from Freeport.
Yesterday, Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness, Recovery and Restoration Iram Lewis said he was not aware of any ultimatum given to clear churches last week.
Taking issue with immigration efforts being described as a “crackdown”, Lewis insisted NGOs were making assumptions.
He told Eyewitness News Online he suspected most of the negative comments have come from undocumented migrants and other “mischievous” people.
However, he stressed the government could not continue to enable people to break the law, and cited health and sanitation concerns for at least one of the churches.
For his part, Weatherford said IGM was fully capable of providing shelter.
He underscored the church had six toilets, a water pump and generator.
He said NGOs like Samaritan’s Purse and Global Aid Network (GAIN) regularly visit the shelter to check on conditions and provide aid.
Christian non profit World Hope International set up a water bladder, and NGOs Water Mission and Open World Relief routinely fill it.
“The pastor is my uncle, he’s still in Florida he didn’t get back yet. He left two Haitian elders there in charge,” Weatherford said.
“I don’t understand how they think they can force people off private property, that’s really upsetting to me. There’s a complete blank-out (sic), no official information from immigration. I told them they need to give some official document saying you need to leave. It can’t be at the whim of an officer.
Weatherford continued: “I mean that’s why the church was built, to help Haitian people. It’s fully capable of handling it.”
At AB, 67-year-old Hank Russell told Eyewitness News Online immigration and defence force officers visited the church on Thursday.
“Where are the people going? They are poor, and they lost everything they got,” Russell said. “This isn’t government land. They have just as much right to stay here as anybody else, as far as I’m concerned.
He added: “My dad built this church.”
There is also a water bladder set up at AB that is monitored by NGOs, and mostly used for washing, Eyewitness News Online was told.
On Friday, there were also four tents at the rear of the property.
Eyewitness News Online spoke to an NGO worker who erected those tents, who explained he turned them over to migrants for shelter as volunteers left the country and no longer needed them.
In Treasure Cay on Friday, Bishop Chereleus Exante said immigration officers had not visited the New Haitian Mission Baptist Church. There were eight tents erected on the property at the time. Exante said the tents were donated by various relief organizations.
Exante said he could not confirm how long the church will remain in shelter-mode, but stressed as long as there was a need, he could not turn anyone away.
“We don’t know because we don’t know where we can send the people,” Exante said.
“If they are coming here, we cannot leave them. We cannot let them go away and sleep in the bushes, that’s why we keep them at the church.”
Immigration concerns were flagged at a Friday briefing with Abaco redevelopment coordinator Jack Thompson, government agencies and international aid partners.
“I do want to flag the issue with access to healthcare,” said a representative from a health non-governmental organization (NGO).
“The immigration crackdowns are creating a significant barrier to access and so what we’re finding now is when we were able to refer patients to the different clinics, especially those where maybe their status is questionable, they’ve lost their paperwork, they still felt comfortable accessing healthcare services.”
The health NGO continued: “At this point in time they no longer feel safe doing that, and so we are getting point-by-point calls, having to go out to different sites, people are hiding their medical conditions, and I think we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb honestly as far as healthcare services go.
“Because people are too afraid to access healthcare, there are not enough resources organic to Abaco island, and we are seeing more and more people who are getting injured, who are living in more difficult conditions because they are hiding.
“And we also have chronic medical conditions that if they go untreated this will continue to become a bigger issue.”
The health NGO said the Abacos have been “very lucky” there has not been any significant health events, but stressed it was important to get ahead of the shift in trends.
The concerns were echoed by a representative from another major relief organization, who insisted it was not the position of international partners to “get political”.
“We are here to provide basic needs to everyone,” said the stakeholder, who gave permission for comments to be used on condition of anonymity.
The stakeholder noted there has been “very good collaboration” with the National Emergency Management Agency.
“But while people are forced into hiding, it becomes really difficulty to supply basic [relief], it makes it just more difficult to understand the quality, and everything becomes more of an issue,” the stakeholder added.
For his part, Thompson told stakeholders they will have to wait on an official policy position from the government on how it will deal with the return of both Bahamians and non-Bahamians to the island.
However, he noted displaced people were evacuated to Nassau at no cost, adding shelters in the city had regular feeding schedules and the “highest” hygiene standard.
“While I appreciate, we do have a duty to provide for all persons: food, shelter, and drink, but some people create a problem and a burden when you don’t access and take advantage of opportunities which are there for you,” he said.
“I just want to put that on the table that while I understand what we have on the ground, I am cognizant of everything that we have on the ground, but some people add to that and make it more complicated by not adhering to the provisions which are made for them at no cost.
“If people continue to just escape for whatever reason, and not make themselves available to the services, then where does that leave the government and me and all the rest of us who are working around the clock.
“It puts us in an awkward position,” Thompson added.