Haitian refugees land on Jamaican shores, while CARICOM’s efforts to help its troubled member state falter

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On July 10, a boat carrying 37 Haitian men, women and children, landed on a beach in Portland, eastern Jamaica. They had reportedly been traveling for two weeks, from Jérémie in Haiti. Local residents immediately came to their assistance with food and water, but when the police arrived on the scene — while commending them for their kindness — the officer in charge warned them that they should not have done so as the Haitians might be carrying guns or infectious diseases. After due “processing” they were found to have neither, but the police officer later repeated their warning to treat any future arrivals with greater caution.

One week later, on July 18, 29 Haitians were taken to court, charged with illegal entry, and fined JMD 7,000 (approx. USD 46) each or three days in jail. They were ordered deported.

At a July 19 press briefing, Information Minister Robert Morgan asserted that the Haitians had not sought asylum and that therefore the Jamaican government would be obliged to deport them, in accordance with international law. He added:

The other thing that we must take into consideration is not to assume that the intended destination of the individuals was Jamaica. There have been circumstances in the past where due to the trade winds, they are seeking to go to the north but they end up in the south.

Many Jamaicans on social media expressed concern and were particularly upset at the fines imposed. One tweeted:

Another expressed similar sentiments:

The anxiety among many social media commentators over the treatment of the refugees reflects an appreciation of the historical ties, and mixed feelings of admiration, helplessness, and obligation towards Haiti, some 500 kilometres (310 miles) to the northeast.

Jamaican journalist Calvin G. Brown noted the “delicately woven historical relationship between Haiti and Jamaica,” including the influential Dutty Boukman, an enslaved Jamaican who started a rebellion that led to the Haitian Revolution. In what he saw as a “disgraceful response,” he observed that the government's actions demonstrated “a lack of recognition of the rights of these Haitian asylum seekers and refugees, and the fact that this international reality is now on our doorstep.” In a subsequent article, the Jamaican journalist asserted that his country's government had “violated almost all international conventions and protocols regarding the treatment of refugees” through its actions.

Another commenter referred to that historical relationship:

The Portland Parish Court, where the group was brought before a judge, later conceded that the Haitians had no legal representation at the time, although “due process” was followed. A Jamaican defence attorney observed:

Perhaps the judicial system has to look at it to say whether in our bid to have rushed justice we're crushing justice, and in cases like these, there will be a special category of cases which perhaps should be handled differently. Because it is not appropriate or can it be something that we are proud of that persons who can barely speak English .. would find themselves quickly pleading guilty.

Freedom Imaginaries (FI), a human rights organisation founded by Jamaican lawyer Malene Alleyne, has been pressing the Jamaican government not to deport the group, and succeeded at the last minute in their request for asylum hearings for the group on July 21. FI pointed to recent urgings to countries by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to suspend the forced return of Haitians, due to the unprecedented humanitarian and security crisis besetting their nation.

As a result, Jamaica's Information Minister announced:

Jamaicans online maintained their opposition to the charging of the Haitians:

Another Jamaican shared:

Referring to recent efforts by CARICOM (led by Jamaica) to assist Haiti, one suggested that actions spoke louder than words:

Others sought solutions:

Indeed, the mostly English-speaking Caribbean Community (CARICOM), of which Haiti is a member, has been trying to solve the Haitian “problem” diplomatically. In the past few months, Jamaica itself has headed an initiative by CARICOM to help Haiti, agreed on in January 2023. At the time, a Gleaner editorial noted, Jamaica seemed well suited to this role:

Importantly, its relationship with Haiti hasn’t been characterised by the same tensions – some will claim superciliousness – that is often apparent in interactions between some other northern Caribbean countries to their poorer regional partner, whose citizens sometimes end up on their shores on their way to seeking better lives abroad.

More significantly, Jamaica has in the past been an interlocutor between Haitian political factions in efforts to restore political stability and constitutional order to the country.

In February, Jamaica offered to assist in security matters:

After an initial one-day working visit to Haiti by representatives from The Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago in February, CARICOM Heads of Government agreed to seek support from African countries for Haiti “in acknowledgement of the common historical experiences and the strong African-Caribbean relationship.” In a subsequent meeting (July 3–5), CARICOM heads agreed to work towards “the immediate creation of a Humanitarian and Security Stabilization Corridor under the mandate of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution, and […] to seek support from international partners to help finance its establishment and the strengthening of security in Haiti.”

In June, Jamaica welcomed a large delegation of some 50 stakeholders to discuss the way forward, led by an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) comprising three former Caribbean Prime Ministers.

In a Statement, the EPG concluded that talks between the various groups, which had taken place since the Jamaica meeting, should continue, and noted the importance of trust-building. It also intended to “return to Haiti in the coming weeks to renew its facilitation efforts.”

The Nassau Guardian reported, however:

Undaunted, at a meeting in Europe recently, Prime Minister Holness kept Haiti on the agenda:

But not all of the African diaspora is impressed. Noting the presence of Rwandan President Kagame at the recent CARICOM summit, the Black Agenda Report observed:

They don’t reveal that Haiti has no elected leadership and that the ‘prime minister’ Ariel Henry was chosen by the Core Group or that the United Nations plays a large role in Haiti’s subjugation.

Likewise, know that the presence of a Rwandan president at a Caribbean summit is proof that an African face is needed to make the case for wrong doing. The upcoming intervention will be called a ‘humanitarian corridor’ but it will be business as usual in the ongoing project to subjugate Haiti.

Meanwhile, how are the Haitian refugees doing? Two Jamaican journalists met and talked with those in charge of the group, which is in temporary housing in a rural location, monitored by the Jamaica Red Cross and guarded by police. They reported the Haitians’ fears and the horrors they had left behind. According to the report:

As they set sail a few weeks ago, they carried their certificates, identification documents, cell phones, and tools, which were confiscated in Portland upon landing.

They are now involved in the asylum process and according to one of the lawyers now representing them, interviews have started. The process will take time. So will the Caribbean's struggles to support their neighbour in a meaningful way.

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