Hurricane Dorian hit the northern Bahamas in September 2019. Making landfall early that month, the Category 5 hurricane devastated the communities of Abaco and the Grand Bahama Islands. The scenes of destruction were indescribable, with 84 deaths and hundreds missing. At least 70 000 have been left homeless.
What is important to note here is that thousands of Haitian migrant workers, living in shanty towns and upon whom the tourist industry depends, face stigma as ‘outsiders’ and are fighting the prospect of deportation. The Haitian population, resident in the Bahamas for generations, perform all the menial and low paying jobs which sustain the tourist marinas and luxury hotels. Haitians farm the land, work in construction and repair the infrastructure used by wealthy Bahamians and incoming tourists.
Haitians must undergo a rigorous and onerous process to register as a Bahamian citizen, and most Haitian workers are undocumented. Seeking refuge from the political violence and US-backed dictatorships that have plagued their home nation, the Bahamas provided an opportunity to start a new life – a reasonably wealthier country in the Caribbean.
Hurricane Dorian not only left a trail of destruction and trauma, but also exposed the economic inequalities that underscore the capitalist structures in the Bahamas. The Mudd, once a shanty-town home to thousands of Haitians, was flattened in minutes. As David Smith wrote in The Guardian newspaper:
Natural disasters often expose the gap between the haves and have nots and Dorian was no different. While the Bahamas has a reputation as one of the most desirable tourist destinations on earth, its luxury hotels and homes depend on a life support system of fishermen, hotel workers and laborers. Once again, it is the poorest who have been hardest hit when catastrophe strikes.
While the Bahamas is a tourist paradise – and an offshore tax haven – it comes at an enormous social and economic cost. International business entities in the Bahamas do not have to pay corporate tax unless the income is generated locally. The nation is also one of the most starkly unequal societies in the Caribbean.
Let’s get one misconception out of the way – the question which inevitably arises after such an extreme weather event is – ‘was it caused by climate change?’ Such a question is misleading, because no single weather event – not hurricane, flood or drought – can be individually attributed to human-induced global warming. The more fruitful question would be ‘was this hurricane worsened by climate change?’ The emphatic answer is Yes.
The oceans absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, and warming surface waters contribute to the energy of hurricane formation. The duration and ferocity of hurricanes is increasing, with Dorian being the severest one to hit the Bahamas. Dorian had one minute of 185 miles per hour winds. The country has been struck by hurricanes in recent years – in 2016 with Hurricane Matthew, and 2017 with Hurricane Irma.
The majority of the victims of the 2019 hurricane occupied shanty towns – makeshift ramshackle residences – of the Abaco Islands. This indicates that the relationship between the Haitians and Bahamians was fraught with inequality prior to Hurricane Dorian. The Bahamian tourist economy was heavily dependent on Haitian day labourers, and the government has maintained their temporary status through a series of bureaucratic and legal measures.
As the survivors have fled into shelters, and accommodate wherever they can find it, the Bahamian government has ramped up the existing xenophobia. Haitians, while of similar Afro-Caribbean heritage as their Bahamian counterparts, face discrimination and cultural hatred, dismissed as lowly-educated buffoons only fit for labouring work. The government in Nassau has taken steps to ‘reclaim’ land once occupied by Haitian workers.
The prime minister, Hubert Minnis, has lamented the generational devastation of Hurricane Dorian, but has not actually defended the Haitian community from racial hatred. When visiting the catastrophic scenes in Abaco Islands, he deliberately made a gesture of kicking in the door of a shantytown home, denouncing illegal immigrants, and declaring that he will do his utmost to make them leave. The attorney general stated that any Haitians who have lost their jobs ‘need to go home’ regardless of whether or not their work permits have expired.
Before any Australian readers sympathise with the statements of the Bahamian government and repeat the oft-heard contemptuous phrase – ‘ go back to where you come from’ – consider the following. Haiti is already a food-insecure nation, with running water, electricity and health care scarcely available. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, thousands of Haitians became refugees, and sought work in the Bahamas.
Haiti was forcibly occupied by the United States in 1915, and has endured repeated interventions in its internal political and economic affairs in the years since. The resultant political instability in that nation prompted an outflow of Haitian refugees.
Rather than resort to lazy, obnoxious slogans, it is high time for the Bahamian economy to look after its Haitian labourers. In times of crisis, whether a hurricane or a pandemic, it is the cleaners, caterers, labouring people and health care workers who keep the economy going.