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Lawlessness should not be ignored

When Hurricane Dorian struck in September 2019, many who lived in the illegal communities of The Mud and Pigeon Peas, shantytowns that had been allowed to flourish on Abaco, opted to stay.

And many of them died.

We will never know the names of all who were lost.

What we have learned after Dorian only enforced what we already knew – shantytowns are unsafe and become deathtraps when disaster strikes.

Shantytowns in Abaco are mainly populated by Haitians and those born in The Bahamas to Haitian parents, many with legal status.

In recent decades, Haitians have come to The Bahamas fleeing dire conditions in their homeland.

Haiti has been plagued with an alarming level of economic inequality for myriad reasons for quite some time.

The situation has worsened since Haitian President Jovenal Moise was assassinated last year.

Therefore, many Haitians continue to flee despite the danger they face on outdated, overcrowded vessels on the open ocean.

The previous administration appeared to make a serious effort to address the shantytown issue after it came to office, but that effort was halted by court action.

Shantytown residents are challenging the government’s 2018 policy, which sought to get rid of shantytowns in The Bahamas.

Implementation of the policy was halted after an injunction — banning demolition on New Providence and parts of Abaco — was granted by Supreme Court Justice Cheryl Grant-Thompson that same year.

After Dorian flattened The Mud and Pigeon Peas, the government made quick work of the clean-up and targeted structures that were newly built elsewhere,

In 2021, Grant-Thompson ordered the government to “cease and desist” further demolitions in shantytowns on Abaco and ruled that the government must get approval from the court if it wishes to demolish structures in shantytowns on the island.

The Minnis administration had asked the court to vary the injunction to exclude applicants on Abaco.

The applicants, meanwhile, had asked the court for the injunction to be extended to cover all shantytowns in The Bahamas or, in the alternative, all shantytowns on Abaco.

As of last year, the injunction fully covers Abaco, with the court insisting it approve any demolition of structures believed to be in violation of the law.

We have heard nothing from the court about this matter since.

In the interim, according to South Abaco MP John Pinder, The Mud and Pigeon Peas are back, having moved just “a little bit north closer to Treasure Cay and it’s as big as it ever was”.

Pinder described the situation as mind-boggling.

“And the real sad thing is there are two groups in the village,” Pinder said.

“There’s one that are the so-called Haitian-Bahamians; they’re Bahamians. They’ve been here all their life.

“They don’t know [anything] else. They spend their money here … and then, there’s another group that wants to basically just take over and that’s the aggressive group that does not care and is the biggest problem.

Pinder said since the injunction “the different departments have been a little nervous, not knowing how far they can go”.

Minister of Works Alfred Sears said the shantytown issue impacts multiple areas of The Bahamas and is multifaceted.

Asked whether he felt the government’s hands are tied on the issue, given the outstanding court case and the existing injunction, the minister said he is awaiting a written opinion from government attorneys.

We believe that the delay by the judge in issuing the ruling has been inordinate.

We also believe that the government is using the injunction as cover not to act.

There are ways to deal with the issues Pinder raised without demolishing those shanties at this time.

Immigration law was not suspended, as far as we are aware.

Those without any status in The Bahamas who have only recently arrived are subject to those laws.

And those who have been in The Bahamas their entire lives should be fast-tracked for status.

There is clearly tension brewing between the two groups – leaving the status quo in place could result in violent conflicts.

There should be no illusions that the adults who live in the shantytowns are there because they have work in Abaco.

The government should target those employers who are hiring immigrants without work permits.

An aerial view of the community shows road; those heavy equipment operators should be targeted as well.

The injunction should be respected, as we are indeed a nation governed by the rule of law, but that does not mean lawlessness should be ignored as one organ of the state deliberates.