Just after 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 9, 18 men, seven women and 11 children, including four babies, landed on the beach at Long Bay in Portland, to the north-east of Jamaica. They had travelled from Haiti in a small, battered sailing boat and were soon met by immigration and police officers and public health officials, while local people brought them food and water.
Minister Robert Morgan, who is responsible for information dissemination in the Office of the Prime Minister, announced their arrival on X (formerly Twitter):
38 more Haitians have arrived in Portland. pic.twitter.com/whV0dlzjy3
— Robert Nesta Morgan (@NestaJA) September 9, 2023
A similar-sized group had arrived on the island just two months earlier, on July 10. After urgent interventions from human rights group Freedom Imaginaries and others, this first group of Haitians obtained legal support and were allowed to apply for asylum. Their cases are still being reviewed by the Jamaican authorities; however, according to their lawyers, the process is going very slowly due to a lack of communication. The attorneys have not yet been able to meet with government representatives to discuss the Haitians’ cases.
In contrast, this second group of Haitians was back in their homeland just two days later, having been transported by a Jamaica Defence Force ship on the night of September 10 “under cover of darkness,” as critics noted.
Just before 9:00 a.m. the following morning, the Jamaican Ministry of National Security posted:
𝐉𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐢𝐜𝐚 𝐏𝐫𝐨𝐯𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐬 𝐒𝐚𝐟𝐞 𝐑𝐞𝐭𝐮𝐫𝐧 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐬𝐞𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐝 𝐆𝐫𝐨𝐮𝐩 𝐨𝐟 𝐇𝐚𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐚𝐧 𝐍𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧𝐚𝐥𝐬
Government of Jamaica Provides Safe Return for second Group of Haitian Nationals who landed in Portland Jamaican on Saturday 9
— Robert Nesta Morgan (@NestaJA) September 11, 2023
The social media response from Jamaicans to the Haitians’ arrival was very mixed. Some were sympathetic (although perhaps fewer than when the first group arrived):
Just imagine if everyone who has ever tried to seek refuge and better for their families was sent back by a lot of these other countries. We know PLENTY of Jamaicans who have done this. I say we help however we can
— Olivia (@rn_livi) September 10, 2023
Commentator Yaneek Page asked Jamaicans to put themselves in their neighbours’ shoes:
Glad they didn’t perish
We are duty-bound humanitarians.
Ask yourself – what level of environmental, social & economic turmoil would FORCE you to leave home on a treacherous sea journey, in an unsafe, overloaded vessel – knowing you won’t be welcome on arrival? https://t.co/Gks9zHZ1ip
— CourageToChangein2023🔥 (@yaneekpage) September 9, 2023
In a similar vein, educator Dennis Minott wondered what Jamaica's “callous” treatment of the Haitian refugees said about its moral compass.
However, others supported the action and saw it as a wise move:
Message sent and received. You land in Jamaica, you will be taken back to Haiti. No lay-lay; no long talking. Try sail you boat clear of our shores. Tough message yes but we must make our position clear. Be ambiguous and more will freely come streaming into our safe harbour.
— Jack Mandora⚖️ (@Zemi66) September 11, 2023
The government, which “has an obligation to protect its citizens,” had acted swiftly this time, he explained, due to security fears. Morgan further pointed out that local intelligence had found that some members of the group had entered Jamaica before, while other individuals had “traces of criminality,” hinting that there might be human trafficking involved. The minister also asserted that “Jamaica was not [the Haitians’] destination of choice,” that they “were very comfortable with being repatriated,” and “did not express a desire to stay.”
However, online news site wiredja.com pointed out:
This move by the Jamaican Government is in contravention of the policy of non-refoulement signed by Jamaica and should be adhered to under the country’s treaty obligations of the 1967 UN Refugees convention.
In response, Minister Morgan argued that the situation in Haiti was largely restricted to the capital, and that “not everywhere is a problem.” He went on to describe some areas of the country as “extremely peaceful,” and noted that the refugees came from Haiti’s historic second city, Cap-Haïtien. “Haiti is not a failed state,” Morgan added, citing an upcoming soccer match with Jamaica on September 12. In a further effort to prove his point, he suggested that Haiti’s murder rate was lower than Jamaica’s.
According to international media reports, Haiti’s crime rate has more than doubled in 2023. The United Nations (UN) recently reported that more than 2,400 people have been killed in Haiti this year amid rampant gang violence, including hundreds killed in lynchings by vigilante mobs; 951 people have been kidnapped so far this year.
The UN's Relief Chief shared:
Alarming reports from #Haiti where escalating violence killed and injured over 70 people in Port au Prince in the last two weeks.
So far this year, more than 2,500 people have been killed and almost 1,000 have been injured.
This carnage needs to stop.
— Martin Griffiths (@UNReliefChief) August 31, 2023
A representative of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch also spoke on Jamaican radio, referring to its latest report on Haiti and, in light of the increasingly dangerous situation there, the UN has asked states not to forcibly deport Haitians. Minister Morgan, however, asserted that the Haitians had “breached domestic law” and therefore had to be returned. “We have not put them in harm’s way,” he added in a radio interview, and insisted that Jamaica had not broken any international laws.
Veteran human rights lawyer and former politician Hugh Small was among several who strongly disagreed with the Minister, declaring:
If we are going to turn a blind eye to legal and moral obligations every time that we are faced with a difficult problem, the country is moving in the direction of a right-wing dictatorship.
We are also concerned that this decision could be indicative of an emerging policy of draconian responses to vulnerable Haitian migrants in an unlawful attempt to deter future flows of Haitians to Jamaica.
Human rights lobby group Stand Up for Jamaica (SUFJ) added its voice, comparing the Haitians’ situation to when Jamaican farm workers were allegedly mistreated in Canada and issues of rights were raised, as well as when Jamaicans try to reach the United States of America. “We cannot have two different attitudes to the situation,” the group noted, concluding:
Stand up for Jamaica is calling on the Government to really consider the atrocities being faced by the people of Haiti and be open to showing more empathy and properly discharging its international obligations, should another set of nationals arrive on our shores.
Meanwhile, since a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) group returned from their second visit to Haiti, there is a sense of frustration regarding efforts to resolve complex issues regarding its fellow member. CARICOM’s Eminent Persons Group (comprising three former regional prime ministers) issued a statement on September 11, saying that since their first meeting:
The Group [was] disappointed that the tone of the discussions had hardened and that the positions of some stakeholders had regressed significantly, reflected in the strident calls for the resignation of the Prime Minister. These developments coincided with the alarming deterioration of the security situation in Port-au-Prince in August and the deepening of the humanitarian crisis in the country.
An agreement was made to conduct “intensive mediation meetings” beginning on September 12.
Following a virtual meeting between CARICOM leaders and Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves echoed the Group's sentiments:
#CARIBBEAN: #StVincent‘s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, says #Haiti’s current government, led by Prime Minister Ariel Henry, must do more in negotiations to address the ongoing governance crisis in the country. pic.twitter.com/c1m0jDhPbs
— CaribbeanNewsNetwork (@caribbeannewsuk) September 11, 2023
In a statement to his parliament, Gonsalves sounded impatient and expressed doubts over the ability of Haiti's prime minister to stabilise his country and address the needs of stakeholders.
Meanwhile, on the same day that his administration sent back the latest group of Haitians, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness continued to advocate on behalf of Haiti, urging financial support at a meeting between the EU and Caribbean leaders in Brussels:
As Haitians look to rise up from their adversities and to make their country one of promise and not of continuous conflict, let us take the additional steps needed to bring them hope. Let us deliver through decisive action so that there can be peace, stability, and prosperity for a people that have suffered for far too long. Let us act now.
Certainly, words have fallen on relatively stony ground, and the roadmap to action on Haiti remains uncertain. More Haitian refugees may find a less than warm welcome if they land on Jamaican shores in the future. As if to echo the political unease, the football match at Kingston's National Stadium ended in a tense draw.