- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas — Standing on a wooden pallet in a predawn glimmer of light, Marc Sedione splashes cold water on his head and grumbles about life as a man without a country.

“It hurts you to be a nobody,” he says.

It’s unusually chilly in this island resort town as Mr. Sedione prepares for his shift as a bagger in a food store. The castoff pallet serves as an open-air shower stall. He shares it with a few neighbors, as he does a freshly dug latrine behind some bushes.

Home is a one-room plywood shelter with no electricity and no running water. A narrow bed crouches just inches above the worn carpet, which seems alive with ants. A kerosene lamp lights the room. A few clean shirts on hangers dangle from the ceiling.

Mr. Sedione was born here 22 years ago. But he’s not a Bahamian citizen because his parents are Haitians. He’s not a Haitian citizen either. He’s never been to Haiti. And though he has applied three times for Bahamian citizenship and spent about $4,500 on paperwork and lawyers, he has nothing to show for his efforts.

The misery of being a Haitian-Bahamian, of living in a crowded tropical ghetto dubbed “the Mud” — it’s located atop mud dredged from the adjacent harbor — leaves him no alternative but to accept the risks of escape, he says.

“I know a guy with a fast boat. I’m going to leave,” he says.

The Mud and similar settlements of Haitians are often considered stopovers or terminals in a Bahamian pipeline that delivers migrants from Haiti to the United States. For decades, Haitians have been fleeing the economic and political chaos of their homeland. Their migration has given birth to a cottage industry of smugglers, who ferry small groups of Haitians (and migrants from other countries) into South Florida.

These small-scale smugglers operate in ideal geographic conditions: hundreds of miles of shoreline, inlets and islands. In their small boats, they easily blend with the flotillas of pleasure and fishing vessels that dot the seascape.

Nobody knows how many of these smugglers are doing business, or how many people they’ve brought to South Florida. But U.S. Border Patrol agents say the handfuls of illegals who end up on local beaches are but a fraction of those who make the trip.

And thousands more are waiting to be smuggled.

Mr. Sedione’s destination is West Palm Beach, where he has family. He will enter illegally. The trip will cost $2,500, the going rate from this part of the Bahamas.

“Our dream is the U.S.A., you know. It’s every Haitian-Bahamian’s dream,” Mr. Sedione says. “It’s like living in the desert and knowing that in the distance is a pool of cool water where you can quench your thirst. You’re willing to die to get there.”

His desperation is common among the few thousand Haitian refugees living in the Mud and an adjacent squatter’s settlement called Pigeon Pea.

“This community is here because of discrimination,” Mr. Sedione says. “When you’ve been treated so bad, so long, you don’t feel for the Bahamas. I don’t know why the Bahamians hate us so much.”

In the Bahamas, the burgeoning Haitian population is openly referred to as the “Haitian problem.”

Their numbers — the Bahamian government estimates about 21,500, while the United Nations and others suggest the figure is probably twice that — strain the islands’ health and education systems. On a few islands, Haitians are blamed for an increase in crime.

Paradoxically, many Bahamians also feel Haitians play an important role in the islands’ economy. They are a source of cheap labor, willing to work as gardeners, trash collectors and dishwashers.

“The Bahamian public becomes politically agitated by what they consider to be huge numbers of people coming in and swamping their society,” says Fred Mitchell, minister of foreign affairs. “At the same time, however, there’s an economic benefit to the migration because the labor force is augmented significantly by those people who come in from Haiti.

“Many people ask the question, ‘If you actually repatriate every suspected illegal immigrant, would the economy of the Bahamas survive?’”

Abaco, a boomerang-shaped island 180 miles off West Palm Beach, is home to one of the largest concentrations of Haitians in the Bahamas. Slightly more than 13,000 people live on the island, according to a 2000 census. As many as 5,000 of them are Haitians, according to some estimates.

Many have settled into the Mud and Pigeon Pea, areas crowded with about 200 small plywood dwellings tucked conveniently out of view from the hotels, restaurants and marinas frequented by tourists. In these neighborhoods, women cook outdoors over charcoal fires and wash clothes in buckets. The men who can’t find jobs can often be found playing cards in an alley. A few squatters run small food stands, selling fruits and vegetables grown in small gardens.

A few peddle drugs. Children play among the rusting carcasses of abandoned vehicles.

When the sun sets, a chorus of gas generators erupts. Some residents have generators, while others pirate power from different sources. Along some alleys, electric cords link rows of shacks. A couple of the better-constructed rooftops boast satellite dishes.

“With the wires running through the mud, when it rains, it’s very, very hazardous,” says Barbara Farington, a Jehovah’s Witness missionary who works in the area. “They build the houses without any building codes, you know. Many, many homes are destroyed when they have fires.”

Three years ago, a fire in Pigeon Pea destroyed more than 20 dwellings, leaving about 140 people homeless. Miraculously, no one was killed, residents say.

Bahamian immigration officials cracked down on the two settlement camps about 10 years ago in response to fears that the influx of Haitian migrants threatened to swamp the schools, hospitals and social service agencies on the island.

Authorities conducted nighttime sweeps through the Mud and Pigeon Pea and seized about 200 Haitians, who were then forced aboard ships bound for Haiti.

Those who were removed were eventually replaced by new arrivals. The numbers have grown to the extent that another crackdown is being considered.

“We don’t call them raids. We call it the removal of illegal migrants,” says Errol Ferguson, senior immigration officer in Abaco. “It’s a serious problem, because I think we are overcrowded with Haitians.”

At least two attempts to evict the squatters from Pigeon Pea and the Mud have been unsuccessful. The dilemma: Finding a suitable place to relocate a few thousand people. One site proposed by the government was rejected by the squatters as being too isolated.

When Haitians do leave, it’s usually because they’ve finally accumulated enough cash to hire a smuggler to take them to the United States.

Last year, about 100 Haitians moved on to the United States, says Mr. Sedione and his neighbor, Calvin Lewis, who says he intends to do the same.

“I’m migrating, man,” he says. “Everybody leaves. You know what I mean? Go to the States because you get a better living. You get more education. You get more opportunities. In the Bahamas, there ain’t no opportunity.”

Mr. Lewis says he has a friend who will take him to Florida for $1,500. They’ll pass through Freeport and then through Bimini, possibly spending the night there before heading toward Florida.

“Yeah, it’s risky,” he says. “But if I go in to the States and I see Coast Guard, I’m jumping out of the boat and I’m swimming. I don’t give a damn. I’m reaching land.”

As on Abaco, clusters of Haitians have emerged on several islands. A large Haitian community is located in the Carmichael Road area about 10 miles outside of Nassau. On Grand Bahama island, an area near Freeport called Pinder’s Point is predominantly Haitian. Large pockets of Haitians can be found in the Bluff, Rock Sound and Governor’s Harbour on the island of Eleuthera.

Eliezer Regnier, a Nassau lawyer who emigrated from Haiti at age 6 with his parents, maintains that all of these Haitian settlements are essentially jump-off points for migrants heading to the United States.

“I would consider the Bahamas more of a pipeline toward the U.S.,” he says. “[Haitians] come to the Bahamas because it is better than Haiti economically. But inevitably, the final trophy, in my view, is still the U.S.”

And this demand for transit into the United States fuels the cottage industry of migrant smuggling.

“Money is a driving force,” Mr. Regnier says

Like many Bahamians, Mr. Regnier doubts that Florida’s coastline has become less vulnerable to smuggling, despite the calls for heightened security in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks against the United States

“One cannot overlook the fact that Grand Bahama, Bimini, Abaco and the barrier islands are very near Florida. So well-competent boatmen can depart at night and easily make landfall before morning,” he says. “Although there’s a lot of technology patrolling that area, inevitably some will get through the cracks.”

Mr. Sedione hopes to become one of those who slip through. He says he’s saved most of what he needs to pay a smuggler and have a few thousand left over to begin his new life in the United States. He plans to go to Miami to finish high school. He wants to attend college to study nursing.

He’s never been to the United States, but feels it offers Haitians, even illegal immigrants, a better life.

“We’ve been living in a nation that has been trampling over our reputations, our lives,” he says. “We need to know a nation that loves us and supports us.”

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