Jamaican government swiftly returns a boat full of Haitians, as Caribbean officials express disappointment after latest talks

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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):

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:

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):

Commentator Yaneek Page asked Jamaicans to put themselves in their neighbours’ shoes:

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:

Minister Morgan told journalists in several radio interviews that none of the Haitians in the second group (as was also the case with the first) had requested asylum.

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:

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.

Similarly, human rights lawyer Malene Alleyne of Freedom Imaginaries described the Jamaican government’s action as “immoral.” In a letter to Prime Minister Andrew Holness, she warned:

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:

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.

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