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The Cost of Being Undocumented When Storms Strike

The story of Haitian migrants in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

By Danielle Fuller-Wimbush on February 13, 2020

It is sometimes said that disasters don’t discriminate, but experience tells us otherwise. While it is true that age, gender, and wealth do not preclude one from suffering, there are, undeniably, people who are at greater risk, unable to flee, and left without the same access to life-saving aid when the storm abates. We saw this after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and after Hurricane Michael in Florida. The unjust systems that create inequality in everyday life are often the same systems that leave some people uniquely vulnerable when natural disasters strike.

When Hurricane Dorian made its way towards the Bahamas on September 1, 2019 with category 5 strength winds, many of the residents of the two islands that fell within the storm’s path—Abaco and Grand Bahamas—were preparing to evacuate, packing bags and leaving on flights to nearby communities of safety. Meanwhile, on the other side of Abaco, undocumented Haitian migrants huddled in fear in the poorly constructed shantytowns of Pigeon Peas and the Mudd. Despite having lived most of their lives on the island, many lacked the required paperwork that would grant them legal residency and allow them to board an airplane. Left with few evacuation options, some remained in their poorly constructed homes, which were leveled by the 185 mph winds. Having the unfortunate burden of being both poor and undocumented, the Haitian migrants were among the most vulnerable, left to endure the brute force of the storm with few options for safety. In the end, at least 70 people died, many from these shantytown communities and thousands more are still unaccounted for.

For those who survived, the suffering has not ended. Fearing deportation in a country that is outspoken in its prejudice against Haitian migrants, many have gone into hiding, staying with friends or family, fearful to accept aid that is available to other victims of the storm. The Bahamian government has failed to ease fears. Instead, one of their first actions after the storm was to clear the Mudd and Pigeon Peas and erect a barbed-wire fence around the area, a clear symbol that rebuilding would not be allowed. In his first speech following the hurricane, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis declared that the government would eradicate the shantytowns where many poor Haitians live. “I send a notice to illegals that they can leave voluntarily,” he said, “or they will be forced to leave.”

Haitian migrants comprise an important part of Bahamian society. Many have lived in the Bahamas for centuries, often doing the jobs that Bahamians do not want to do—farming, cleaning, construction, and landscaping. However, most are unable to secure a foreign work permit which requires an employer sponsor, leaving them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. While both Bahamians and Haitians share a history of colonization and slavery, many Bahamians have open disregard for Haitians, which has been exacerbated in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

In response to the crisis, UUSC is partnering with local grassroots organizations and building relationships with the local faith community to ensure that those impacted by the storm have food and basic essentials, legal guidance and advocacy to support their rights, as well as trauma support. At the same time, we are supporting locally led research to better understand the barriers to aid that Haitian migrants face to advocate for a better response in the years of recovery that lie ahead. We are in solidarity with the Haitian migrants, honoring their worth, and advocating for their dignity.

Photos by UUSC

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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