NASSAU, THE BAHAMAS—According to Kristy Belton, Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Connecticut, The Bahamas is the only country in the region that doesn’t grant citizenship based on birth.
She made this statement at the recent College of The Bahamas’ panel discussion entitled: “21st Century Slavery in The Bahamas: A Discussion on Statelessness.”
The framers of the Bahamian constitution, in 1972, made this unconventional move that now in the 21st century Bahamas has created a large group of marginalized, primarily African persons.
Why did they do this?
In his recent piece “Independence Series, Part 1” Philip Galanis writes: “One of the early issues discussed at the Constitutional Conference was Bahamian citizenship. The British attempted to persuade the delegation to accept the precedent that had been established by other colonies; that is, for British citizens and “belongers” living in the colonies to register at Government House, so that, at independence, they would automatically become citizens. The Bahamian delegation unanimously objected to this, arguing instead that citizenship should not be so open-ended, and that there should be a process by which citizenship would be determined by the government. The Bahamian delegation was adamant and united, and the British relented and accepted the Bahamian position.”
While Galanis purports the current citizenship laws, which resulted from the 1972 Constitutional Conference, had more to do with minimizing the number of British citizens and ‘belongers’ who would become Bahamian citizens at independence, the reality is that The Bahamas’ citizenship laws have been more effective in excluding many Africans from Bahamian citizenship, particularly those born in Haiti. And, perhaps, this was the true intent; to ensure that the growing English-speaking, black petty bourgeois class in The Bahamas would be consolidated at the expense of the African masses.
Bahamian Historian Gail Saunders writes in Islanders in the Stream: “The close human linkage between Haiti and the Bahamas Islands has existed as long as there have been people in the archipelago, producing conflict and tensions but also bringing mutual benefits.”
A source of this “tension” has always been the migration of Africans born in Haiti to The Bahamas during revolutionary times or during oppressive times in Haiti; the 1807 Haitian Revolution and the Duvalier dictatorship are key examples. “The total number of Haitians resident in The Bahamas when “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power in Haiti in 1957 was probably no more than a thousand…,” writes Saunders, “and by the time of independence was widely believed to be forty thousand – six times the total reported in the 1970 census and more than ten times the number with valid work permits…this body of migrants represented as much as 20 percent of the people living in The Bahamas.”
The growing number of Africans from Haiti migrating to The Bahamas was such a source of concern that the new PLP government even reached out to the merciless Duvalier regime to help them “solve” the “problem”. According to Saunders: “In 1968, the PLP also held ostensibly friendly, if inconclusive, discussions with the Duvalier government about resolving the [Haitian migration] problem.”
If in 1968 “resolving” the migration of Africans from Haiti to The Bahamas was on the minds of the PLP, in 1972 it had to be on their minds when framing the constitution. The way they resolved the issue was to make the attainment of citizenship difficult for Africans born in Haiti [naturalized citizens must show competency in English] and for Africans born in The Bahamas of Haitian descent and to then ship these Africans back to Haiti. In fact, Loftus Roker, one of the delegates to the 1972 Constitutional Conference, when he became immigration minister was infamous for “rounding up” and deporting Africans from Haiti.
Fast forward to today and what we have in The Bahamas is a large group of persons born in The Bahamas, primarily African, primarily working class, who struggle to get citizenship from the only country that they know.
In her presentation entitled “Statelessness and Stranded in The Bahamas,” Belton explained the two types of statelessness as defined in international fora, de jure and de facto statelessness.
Online sites define statelessness as, “a legal concept describing the lack of any nationality, an absence of a recognized link between an individual and any state”. In other words, a person who does not have citizenship in any state is said to be stateless.
A de jure stateless person is defined as someone who is "not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law". While a de facto stateless person is defined as someone who is “outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable or, for valid reasons, unwilling to avail him- or herself of the protection of that country”.
Belton conceded, however, that the theoretical difference between de jure and de facto statelessness was often obscured in reality since both groups of stateless persons are confronted with the same challenges.
Also, while Ms. Belton acknowledged that Bahamian officials don’t know the number of stateless persons living in The Bahamas or whether they can be defined as de jure or de facto she has defined most stateless persons in The Bahamas as de facto.
The reason for this is that the Haitian constitution offers citizenship for children born to Haitian parents. Article 11 of the Haitian constitution states: “[Any] person born of a Haitian father or Haitian mother who are themselves native-born Haitians and have never renounced their nationality possesses Haitian nationality at the time of birth.” Recent changes to the Haitian constitution also allow for dual citizenship.
However, Belton pointed out that claiming Haitian citizenship is not that easy in actuality. She said that often times there is difficulty in getting documents to claim Haitian citizenship. She also pointed out that Haitian citizenship could only be passed on by parents who are “native-born Haitians”.
From the perspective of The Bahamas, persons born in The Bahamas whose parents are not citizens of The Bahamas can only attain citizenship by applying for it at the age of eighteen or within twelve months thereafter. Registration as a citizen is not guaranteed, however, and is subject to unspecified “interests of national security or public policy.”
In reality there are thousands of people born in The Bahamas, primarily African, who after having applied for Bahamian citizenship wait many, many years to be registered or are straight out denied Bahamian citizenship.
Thus, based on the previous academic explanations of “statelessness”, many Africans of Haitian descent, born in The Bahamas, who are either unable or unwilling to claim Haitian citizenship or unable to attain Bahamian citizenship end up “stateless”. While they are the primary group that find themselves in this situation, there are countless persons descended from other nationalities who find themselves in limbo as well. This statelessness has led to widespread social and economic deprivation and the constant fear of being detained or deported.
In Dr. Ian Strachan’s presentation, “Mules or Men: Haitian Migrants, Identity, Citizenship and Security in the 21st Century Bahamas” he spoke of the weakness and sense of paranoia when defining Bahamian citizenship. He opined that there was a lack of confidence when defining the ‘Bahamian identity’, with it often being described in terms of what it is not, as opposed to what it is.
And what it is, without a doubt, is an ‘African identity’. A realization of this fact, would allow us to define the so-called ‘Bahamian identity’ very easily. It would also allow us to simplify citizenship procedures. Fully understanding that we are one African people who were forcibly dispersed throughout the world, who must be re-united in order to begin the process of freeing us of all that oppresses us, would move us to tear down these decades old walls of prejudice against our African brothers and sisters from Haiti and against those from throughout our region because, in truth, these are the people who the ruling class has structured our citizenship laws to keep out, not the British.
Dr. Strachan added that denials of citizenship leads to structural inequality and therefore The Bahamas can’t advance and can’t grow in a healthy, wholesome way. He also stated that the issue of citizenship should be included in the upcoming referendum on citizenship and that his personal view was that automatic citizenship should be the way forward and at the very least there should be some “middle ground”.
For the African People’s Socialist Party-Bahamas, there can be no compromise as it pertains to citizenship rights. We maintain that all persons born in The Bahamas should be granted automatic citizenship rights. According to our Revolutionary National Democratic Program:
• We will oppose all discriminatory citizenship laws that favour Europeans at the expense of others from the Caribbean
• We will fight for a national referendum to be held to change the citizenship laws of The Bahamas
• We will fight for new laws that will grant automatic citizenship to all persons born in The Bahamas
• We will fight for new laws that will grant dual citizenship to all persons from the Caribbean and those of African descent