By Roderick A. Simms II
An advocate for sustainable Family
Island growth and development
Immigration takes place when a country permits non-nationals from other nations to stay (reside) within its borders rather than “come and go” for visiting purposes. Immigrants, meaning those who migrate to another country through immigration, significantly contribute to the economy and social construct of a society. But for small island developing states (SIDS) such as The Bahamas, the topic of immigration can become a sticky issue when dealing with both legal and illegal migration.
Immigration policy encompasses job security, public assistance, labour issues and enforcement issues. There are usually four types of immigration status that exist: Citizens, residents, non-immigrants and undocumented. Developing economies often struggle to enforce immigration policies because of undocumented migrants. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments will consider improving policies for immigration enforcement to better manage resources and expectations. However, human rights experts have warned that the pandemic is not to be linked to immigration enforcement in any manner. With the topic being extremely sensitive, particularly during a national crisis, measures will need to be put in place to ensure it is managed properly and to minimise the occurrence of illegal Immigration post COVID-19. Prior to the current mandatory lockdowns, the prime minister announced that a “strike force” would be established to aggressively pursue illegal migrants in The Bahamas as he declared it is time to “take our country back”. This segment will explore the impact of immigration from both ends, post COVID-19.
Undocumented workers in a global pandemic
With COVID-19 a time for societies to come together to help each other, it has also raised awareness of the risks that poor immigration enforcement has created regarding undocumented migrants in a global health crises. Studies have found that undocumented workers are prone to a high risk of infection and generating new clusters of infection (United Workers Nation, 2020). This is something that the Bahamian government should follow closely considering the high level of undocumented migrants that are in The Bahamas, and who reside in precarious living and working conditions that may not enforce strict social distancing protocols. A recent joint statement from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organisation said: “It is vital that everyone, including all migrants and refugees, are ensured equal access to health services and are effectively included in national responses to COVID-19, including prevention, testing and treatment. Inclusion will help not only to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, but will also serve to protect public health and stem the global spread of COVID-19.”
Public health risks increase when there is no effective way of managing or testing undocumented migrants due to fears of being detained. Also, economic conditions for undocumented migrants may have deteriorated due to lockdown restrictions, resulting in a loss of income. New Providence has the highest number of reported cases, meaning that testing, strict social distancing procedures and other health precautions need to be highly enforced. But, just months ago, Hurricane Dorian displaced many illegal Haitian migrants, which increased the need for a new home and means of income. Tackling illegal immigration is important for the safety of Bahamian citizens and residents who are in compliance with the law, and contribute to the economic and social development of The Bahamas.
Immigration and Employment
Across the globe, migrant workers such as maids, garbage collectors, farm hands and construction workers are faced with critical concerns regarding job security and social benefits. Some may even be stranded as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. Against this backdrop, thousands of Bahamian workers are applying for government assistance as unemployment numbers soar and small to medium-sized (SMEs) businesses struggle to survive, particularly in the Family Islands. This scenario has exposed flaws not only in the immigration system but in a labour market that permits foreign workers to do jobs that Bahamians are capable of doing. This is not to criticise migrant workers who want to work in The Bahamas, but there should be mechanisms put in place to limit the amount of time an expatriate can work in the country while also providing training for future Bahamian employees.
The economic contribution of foreign workers should be measurable. There should be no industry that hires a disproportionate ratio of foreign workers to Bahamians. There is a need for a detailed database for each industry, together with a profile of every employed/unemployed Bahamian in search of a job or better opportunity. In this case, Bahamians are able to fill posts and, if needed, receive training for a limited time from foreign workers. It also protects the rights of migrant workers because an overcrowded labour market can make jobs scarce and, therefore, economic conditions become harder for those seeking employment or government assistance. Protecting the well-being of migrant workers is as equally important as prioritising jobs for Bahamians.
In closing, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for stronger enforcement of immigration laws. Without this, the labour market is at risk of suffering from human rights errors and higher unemployment numbers. It is time to properly train Bahamians for better jobs, and allow them to have priority in accessing those jobs, particularly in a crisis. Every country has a right to protect the livelihood of its citizens and residents. Therefore, following and adhering to immigration laws are important. In addition, immigration policies should ensure the social and economic development of The Bahamas. While immigration plays an important part in providing countries with greater innovation and invention, these skills/assets should be passed on to and secured by Bahamians.