What is the Jamaican government's position on Haitian refugees?

Feature image via Canva Pro.

On the afternoon of October 15, another group of Haitian refugees arrived in Jamaica, landing in Long Bay, along the parish of Portland on the island's north-east coast. Global Voices contributor Emma Lewis, who blogs at Petchary, said that — according to one media house — they were “rounded up” by the authorities after some had allegedly changed their clothes and tried to flee. Last month, the Jamaican government sent back another group within 24 hours of their arrival, claiming it did not break any international laws in doing so.

The entry of boatfuls of Haitian refugees into Jamaican territory has become more frequent the more Haiti's economic, social and political crisis has deteriorated. The first group to land in Jamaica in recent times came ashore on July 10. They are currently under the care of the Jamaica Red Cross in Portland's neighbouring parish of St. Mary as they await the results of their asylum applications, which were submitted by their legal counsel, human rights lawyer Malene Alleyne, on July 21.

One of the most persistent questions in the Jamaican blogosphere around Haitian refugees is whether or not there is a clear policy in place. After the refugees who arrived in September were sent back, there was much debate on social media, with some blasting the move and others supporting it. Regional journalist Wesley Gibbings suggested at the time:

Petchary noted that there is indeed an existing policy, formulated in 2009. Quoting from the Jamaica Observer, she explained that the legislation “is based on the 1951 Refugee Convention [which Jamaica ratified in July 1964] and the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention [which it ratified in October 1980]”:

It outlined a refugee as someone who, ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country of his or her nationality and is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country, or who, not having a nationality, and being outside the country of his or her former habitual residence is unable or owing to such fear, unwilling to return.’

Jamaica was also the first Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member state, in February 2013, to ratify the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Petchary, who calls the Jamaican government's approach to the refugees “nonchalant,” observed that several local human rights groups have decried the current situation, pointing out that the government’s recent actions are in contravention of international refugee and human rights treaties.

Stand Up for Jamaica suggested the government's stance on the issue was “insincere,” and called its decision to return the refugees who landed on October 15 “unacceptable,” adding that by going back, they faced “a real risk of persecution, torture or other serious or irreparable harm […] which is explicitly prohibited under international refugee and human rights treaties”:

The Government’s denial to the Haitians of the right to due process, the right to legal representation, the right to be heard, the rights of the child to special protection, and the right to access basic information on the asylum procedure, is inconsistent with human and constitutional rights principles and standards and is a brazen affront to the principle of non‐refoulement, which requires the Government to grant individuals seeking international protection access to efficient asylum procedures.

Stand Up for Jamaica's Executive Director Carla Gullotta, in acknowledging the fact that Haiti is a member of CARICOM and that the regional collective has had “a strong voice on the unfortunate situation happening in Haiti,” added that the government should “use the opportunity of the arrival of Haitian refugees as a show of support and sincerity; not just promises to send security personnel to Haiti”:

[I]t is disheartening and counterproductive to return Haitians to harsh conditions, instead of welcoming and supporting them. Stand up for Jamaica wishes to emphasize that the Haitians, including children, are not criminals. They are refugees […] They did not commit any offence, apart from escaping fear, terror, hunger, gang war, and instability. Some of them are children and it is hard to believe that they are in conflict with the law.

The release reiterated the group's request for “a meeting to discuss international law standards for the protection of Haitian migrants to ensure that this situation is not repeated in the future, and most importantly prevent the risk of a report being sent to the United Nations Security Council for action to be taken against Jamaica.”

On October 18, Jamaicans for Justice reminded the government of its responsibilities under the regional Treaty of Chaguaramas, as well as international conventions, which require signatories “to provide asylum to refugees and to treat them with dignity and respect.” It also cautioned “against using stigmatizing language against Haitians”:

JFJ recognizes that those with criminal records may pose a risk to national security. However, it is important to balance national security concerns with the protection and respect of the human rights of migrants and refugees. We urge the government to conduct individual assessments in accordance with due process, rather than relying on broad generalizations.

It summarised the entire situation by saying:

Should any more Haitians arrive seeking refuge, the government of Jamaica must allow individuals to speak to an attorney and receive due process. This includes clear articulation on processes that allow for fair and expeditious procedures for status determination, including appeals, and guaranteeing the rights of all recognized refugees in Jamaica. […] Anything less is demonstrative contempt for human rights and due process.

With the situation in Haiti still tenuous, and with Jamaica just a few hundred kilometres away, only time will tell which stance the Jamaican government will adopt.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.