Prime Minister Phillip Davis says while Bahamians are “a compassionate people” they cannot afford to “shoulder any more burdens” as he reiterated Nassau’s position regarding illegal migration as well as the ongoing situation in the neighbouring French-country of Haiti.
In a nationwide radio and television broadcast on Sunday night in which he addressed a wide range of issues including the just concluded 44th Caribbean Community (CARICOM) summit that was held here, Prime Minister Davis announced the launch of “Operation Secure,” a collaborative security operation between the Royal Bahamas Police Force, The Defence Force, and the Department of Immigration, to address security and migration-related issues in unregulated and unlawful communities.
He told the nation that stabilising the situation in Haiti, where efforts are being made to hold long overdue Presidential and Legislative elections, is the most effective way to decrease the amount of potential economic migrants coming to here daily.
CARICOM leaders at the end of their summit last Friday issued a statement on Haiti reiterating that the 15-member regional integration grouping must play a leadership role in addressing the deteriorating situation in Haiti.
“Heads affirmed that decisive action is needed at the earliest opportunity by CARICOM in view of the mounting insecurity and its widespread impact on all facets of Haitian life,” the statement said.
Prime Minister Davis, who is also the CARICOM chairman, told Bahamians that he has been “very clear with our international friends that assistance to Haiti must be carried out carefully and strategically, and with an acknowledgement of the burden The Bahamas is already carrying, and has been carrying for decades.
“Our country has been through a lot. We have very serious challenges and limited resources with which to face these challenges. We are a compassionate people, but we cannot take on new burdens,” he said defending again his decision not to sign a pledge at the Summit of Americas last year that included a commitment to take on refugees.
Davis said while 21 other countries including Caribbean nations like Barbados and Jamaica, signed on to this agreement, he declined because “our small nation cannot possibly shoulder any more of a burden.
“We are standing strong on this position. Despite pressure, earlier this year, when the United Nations called for countries in our region to halt deportations to Haiti, once again, I decided to continue repatriations.
“This is a decision I made for the benefit of all Bahamians and future generations of Bahamians. The Bahamas is for Bahamians, and for those who are prepared to follow the laws of our country. We simply cannot afford open borders.
“This is why we continue to advocate for a Haitian-led solution to the ongoing crisis in Haiti – a sustainable solution supported by a partnership between many nations. The Bahamas will gladly endorse such an effort, but that solution cannot, and will not, ever include actions that may further negatively impact the Bahamian economy and our communities.”
Prime Minister Davis said that he “fully understand the frustrations felt throughout our islands,” and that “successive administrations could have done more to protect our borders, enforce our laws, eliminate shantytowns, or build an international coalition to address the root problem.
“The Bahamian people have understandably grown impatient. The need to tackle our immigration problems is urgent. Because the life we enjoy here is precious. And anything this valuable must be protected.”
In his address, Prime Minister Davis said he wanted Bahamians to know that his administration has “a comprehensive plan to disrupt the flow of migrants to our islands and to actively pursue the identification and repatriation of those who have entered our nation illegally.
“The Bahamas is a nation of laws, and we will continue to enforce those laws, responsibly and humanely. And what we are doing is making an impact.”
He said last year, 4,748 persons were repatriated, the largest number of repatriations in a calendar year in the country’s history.
“In 2023, already, 1,024 persons have been repatriated. Since we came into office in September 2021, only one migrant vessel was able to land on an inhabited island.”
Davis said alongside the “very vigorous and ongoing repatriation efforts” the authorities have worked to bring the international community together in support of a sustainable solution in Haiti.
“In addition, for more than a year, we have been systematically working to satisfy legal requirements, put in place by our nation’s Supreme Court, so that we can take more aggressive action on shantytowns.”
He said over this period, the authorities have conducted surveillance and gathered evidence establishing that these communities “are unlawful and expanding.
“For years, the Court’s injunction has stood in the way of concerted action on unregulated and illegal communities. But on Friday, the 10th of February, our application to have the injunction discharged was successful, paving the way for the government to act,” Davis said, adding that “following the removal of the injunction, we immediately launched Operation Secure.
“Operation Secure is a collaborative security operation between the Royal Bahamas Police Force, The Defence Force, and the Department of Immigration, to address security and migration-related issues in unregulated and unlawful communities. The operation is focused on identifying irregular migrants, documented migrants, and Bahamians living in these communities, and addressing their status in a comprehensive and coordinated manner.
“We cannot have shantytowns on our islands: they are unsafe, a hazard to public health, they are against the law, and they directly impact our way of life. Our priority is decisive action, based on the laws of our land.”
Prime Minister Davis said that undocumented migrants will continue to be processed and repatriated, adding “this is already underway and will be greatly expanded in the coming days and weeks.
“Documented migrants living in unregulated communities will be required to relocate at their expense or their employer’s expense, or face repatriation. And any Bahamian citizens found to be living in these communities will be required to relocate.”
He warned also that the authorities will hold accountable the entire network of people who make possible these shantytowns.
“Through Operation Secure, we will prevent the exploitation and abuse of migrants by unscrupulous landowners and businesses, holding accountable those with a reckless disregard for our laws. Operation Secure targets those entering our borders illegally, as well as any Bahamian citizen or legal resident who is breaking our laws.
“If you are a Crown Land holder who is unlawfully leasing land, you will be prosecuted. If you are engaged in human smuggling, you will be prosecuted. And if you are employing migrants illegally, you will be prosecuted.
“We will have a zero-tolerance policy for anyone seeking to break or circumvent the laws of The Bahamas. We depend on the skill and professionalism of our uniformed officers.”
Prime Minister Davis said that to support the successful execution of Operation Secure, the government will continue to recruit more immigration officers and consideration is being given for the construction of a new Detention Centre on the island of Inagua, so that migrants who are detained anywhere in The Bahamas can be repatriated without the need to travel to New Providence.
He said as Operation Secure addresses the situation on the ground, the authorities are also investing heavily in protecting the country’s borders.
He said the Royal Bahamas Defence Force is completing the final phase of the Sandy Bottom Project and that this multi-administration initiative is the largest capital investment project ever initiated by the government to expand the Defence Force’s fleet.
Davis said the additional ships have enhanced the Defence Force’s capabilities to carry out its mandate to secure our territorial waters.
“As we increase our capacity for border protection, we will build on our partnerships with neighbouring countries like the US, Cuba, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Haiti for enhanced cooperation and intelligence sharing. We will also be increasing border protection operations with key partners like the US Coast Guard.
“The reality is we have to defend 100, 000 square miles of territory in The Bahamas. Even wealthy nations like the United States, with all resources at their disposal, struggle to put a complete stop to the inflow of undocumented migrants across their borders. But the difficulty of the task will not deter us from doing all that we can to intercept undocumented vessels in our waters.
“Where cooperation is possible, we will welcome all the help we can get – whether through our work with regional and international partners or through major NGOs whom we will invite to support Operation Secure by providing humanitarian help,” Prime Minister Davis said, adding “we pledge to conduct our efforts swiftly and humanely, and above all to maintain accountability to the Bahamian people on this commitment”.