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Tears, fears at Haitian camp

Their stories are gut-turning – a deafening cacophony of gunfire, explosions, and the screams of women and children raped at will in Haiti.

Blood, tears, and death were the common themes, mixed with the acrid smell of burning flesh.

None among them is spared the horror. Not a woman who is four months pregnant, they told caregivers through a Jamaica-born interpreter, nor an eight-year-old girl who witnessed her mother being killed. Her father must carry on back home, raising two children in political chaos.

At the time, the treacherous Caribbean Sea seemed more forgiving. Thirty-seven people. One dingy boat. Fourteen days adrift. No food or water. And the ever-looming threat of sickness or an angry wave.

Last week, Jamaica imposed a $7,000 fine or three days in prison on the adults for illegal entry and ordered that they be sent back home to Haiti. They would love to stay in the island and find work. And a last-minute application for asylum last week could bring them some relief. Still, their fate remain uncertain.

Even in the rustic St Mary camp, where they are now being housed, isolated behind languages, police guards, and the anxiety of the unknown, life seemed better than at home in Haiti. There was the assurance of three meals daily and routine medical check-ups.

As a Sunday Gleaner team surveyed the grounds last Thursday, two children from among the group walked by smiling, arms filled with mangoes.

It seemed their caregivers were far more unhinged, however. The tales have left some in tears, others angry at the fines imposed.

“They weren’t even given a chance to tell their stories in court. The horror stories of murder and rape. Stories of all their possessions taken away,” bemoaned one caregiver, next to tears.

“They are not embellishing. The nurse was here yesterday and she was in tears. She lives in Haiti and she said she doesn’t travel by road but by air, because they just pull you over, rob you, rape you, kill you,” she said.

“I have not eaten. I have been bawling the whole time because you become in touch with their feelings and you have to empathise,” the caregiver told The Sunday Gleaner. “These people are poor; they are farmers, masons, welders. There is one nail technician, carpenters, and fishermen.”

Police at the camp said there have been no security issues.

As they set sail a few weeks ago, they carried their certificates, identification documents, cell phones, and tools, which were confiscated in Portland upon landing. Not having those documents and equipment back home hardens things.

“I just can’t understand why more Jamaicans are not taking up this thing, realising what’s going on, and help,” bemoaned another caregiver, adding that some Haitians expressed fear for their lives if they return home.

For now, the caregivers bring them nail polish, sanitary napkins, colouring books and crayons, clothes, food, cakes, and tears flow with every new French word they learn and with every flash of smile from a child.

SITUATION STILL DIRE

Justice of the Peace Roydell Clarke, one of three representatives from the St Mary Lay Magistrates Association assisting the group, is also worried about the their possible return to an unstable society. The other two are Frederick Young and Kimberly Fletcher.

“For all those people to be travelling on that boat was a grave risk. One huge wave could have taken their lives. They are here now; do we just throw dirty water in their faces?” he asked. “If you charge them, they can’t even find one per cent of that. So, it means that they have to face the judgment.”

Last week, de facto Information Minister Robert Morgan indicated that the 37 Haitians, including eight children, were advised of their rights under international law and that none had submitted an application for asylum on arriving in Jamaica. As a result, he said that the Government has no choice but to deport them.

“The other thing that we must take into consideration is not to assume that the intended destination of the individuals was Jamaica,” Morgan said last Wednesday.

Sunday Gleaner questions to the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade and National Security about the processes that were involved in the provision of legal advice to the Haitians; how the fines are being paid; and the deportation date were not answered up to press time.

One of the workers at the camp said that for several days after their arrival, members of the group repeated the word ‘asylum’, but this subsided after the Haitians were informed that they would be charged and sent home.

“So, I was surprised when the Government said they did not seek asylum,” the official, who was not authorised to speak to media, told The Sunday Gleaner.

In a last-ditch effort, Human rights group Freedom Imaginaries urged the Government on Thursday to comply with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights directives to suspend the forced return of Haitians.

A day later, the group wrote again to the Government, this time requesting asylum for the 37 Haitians.

“We remind the GOJ that the UNHCR has warned that ‘conditions in Haiti continue to be dire, and not conducive to forced returns’ and has called upon states in the region to “suspend the forced return of Haitians to their country’,” said Malene C. Alleyne, international human rights lawyer and founder of Freedom Imaginaries.

In its November 2022 call on states, the UNHCR said the forced removal of people to a place where they may face risk of persecution, torture or other serious or irreparable harm is explicitly prohibited under international refugee and human rights law.

For persons not eligible for refugee status, the agency said countries may grant complementary protection, temporary protection, humanitarian admission or other legal stay arrangements until the security situation in Haiti permits safe returns.

On Saturday, the information minister confirmed that the Government is considering an asylum request.

“As of yesterday (Friday), the Haitian migrants have requested asylum. This was done through an attorney,” he said in a social media post.

Morgan continued: “There is some misunderstanding as to how the asylum process works. The Government cannot force anyone to apply for asylum nor can we force any illegal migrant to stay in Jamaica. Once a person applies for asylum, there are standard protocols based on international agreements that have to be activated.”

HISTORICAL CONTEXT IMPORTANT

Myrtha Désulmé, president of the Haiti-Jamaica Society, has joined Freedom Imaginaries’ appeal. She said fears about opening the ‘floodgates’ to more Haitians if this group is allowed to stay are not legitimate.

“Why can the whole world come together and find solutions and resettle the Ukrainians, the Venezuelans, the Afghans, the Syrians [but] with the Haitians it’s always run them so the next set doesn’t’ come? The Caribbean must come together and find a solution … ,” Désulmé argued.

The main Jamaican opposition People’s National Party has not outrightly called for the group to be allowed to stay, but it has insisted that the Government adheres to “due process” and international obligations.

In the meantime, publisher and pan-Africanist Latoya West-Blackwood, last week described news of the court-imposed fines and planned deportation as a “low point in our history”.

“All I’ll say is that I pray our country never gets to any extreme point of vulnerability that requires depending on the kindness of others. We can never lose sight of the historical context of humanity when balancing the scales of order and justice. This is definitely worth weeping,” she said in a social media post.

Professor Verene Shepherd, chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, was also taken aback.

“There is a lack of knowledge of what Haiti did for black people in this country,” she charged, referring to the world’s first black republic and one of the poorest countries globally. “In the matter of fining and deporting Haitians and quoting international law, how about ‘humanitarian law’?”

Last week, a senior member of the Andrew Holness administration said the situation presented some “awkwardness” for the Jamaican prime minister, who is among those leading CARICOM’s charge for international assistance to help Haiti restore law and order and wrest territorial control from marauding gangs.

The same day the Haitians were sentenced in local courts, Holness was in Brussels, Belgium, the heart of the European Union, appealing to leaders of the 27-nation bloc to seriously consider contributing financially to the efforts to help alleviate the humanitarian and security challenges facing Haiti.

The 2023 UN Humanitarian Response Plan requires US$720 million to support some three million Haitians affected by extreme gang violence, hunger, and cholera, but is currently only 23 per cent funded, he said.

Jamaica has also played host to stakeholders of the Haiti society meeting to hammer out what continues to be an elusive agreement on driving their own solutions. It has backed support for an international security force.

The gangs have pillaged neighbourhoods, raped adults and children, and kidnapped hundreds of victims in a bid to control more territory, with violence worsening since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Haiti has failed to hold elections since Moïse’s murder. In early January, the terms of the last remaining 10 senators expired, leaving no elected officials in place.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com