Editorial | Refugees face darkness
We ought to be able to take public officials at their word, especially when they undertake to abide by their countries’ international obligations and declared national policies.
This newspaper certainly took the national security minister, Horace Chang, at his. We supposed the Haitians did, too. It is presumed that he spoke for the Jamaican government, of which he is also the deputy prime minister.
“You are our friends,” Dr Chang said. “We welcome Haitians. We will look after you.”
That was in mid-August, the Holness administration having been shamed into reversing its expulsion of 37 Haitian refugees, who had been hurriedly tried, convicted and fined for illegal entry into Jamaica, without reasonable opportunity to seek asylum, until a local rights group intervened.
Dr Chang’s action, apparently, was as much to assuage the international community of its adherence to international humanitarian law as a statement of empathy with the Haitians.
Many people, unfortunately, may see Jamaica as a chimaera. Less than a month after Dr Chang’s soothing remarks another group of Haitian, 36, were spirited out of the island in the dead of night, fewer than 24 hours after they arrived in Jamaica by boat.
The government’s claim was that they were mostly the victims of human trafficking and that some among them posed security threats to Jamaica. The information minister, Robert Morgan, also suggested these potential refugees didn’t really want to come to Jamaica. Their real destination was the United States. Which is probably true. Except that there is only Mr Morgan’s word for it.
Indeed, it is not clear that the group was afforded the spirit of the United Nations Refugee Convention and Jamaica’s own policy for dealing with asylum seekers, which, on paper, is generally quite robust.
“We found security threats within the group – persons who may have presented a risk to our national security and we had to act very quickly to ensure that these security threats did not come into our society and impact the safety of our citizens,” was how Mr Morgan explained the hustling of the group – who landed in eastern Jamaica at six o’clock the previous morning – on to a Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard vessels at 3 a.m. the next day, for the return trip to Haiti.
“... We had intelligence reports about individuals,” Mr Morgan said. “There’s one individual who has been to Jamaica several times … clearly engaged in human trafficking.”
The UN’s 1951 convention defines refugees as people who flee their countries for reasons such as a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
But that definition has been built on by a series of regional protocols, including the 1984 Cartagena Declaration of the Organization of American States – of which Jamaica is a member – which identifies “generalised violence … internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” as among the crises that refugees may be fleeing.
HANGING BY A THREAD
That definition fully describes today’s Haiti, where, since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the state is barely functional, hanging on by a thread. Criminal gangs operate with impunity, killing and maiming, occupying the security vacuum left by the state.
The refugee convention prohibits the imposition of penalties on refugees “on account of their illegal entry or presence” on refugees who come “directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened … provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence”.
It also especially prohibits the return of asylum seekers “to the frontiers of territories where (their) life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
And while an entire group may be deemed to be refugees, it is generally expected that asylum cases are determined individually.
There has been no explanation of how it was determined either that none of the returned Haitians was interested in asylum, or that no one met the criteria for refugee status.
Jamaica’s 2009 refugee policy lays out a series of steps to be followed in dealing with potential refugees, who should be interviewed in a language the asylum seeker understands. In the case of the Haitians that, generally, would be Kreyòl or French.
If an immigration officer initially denies a person entry to Jamaica, but that person expresses fear of returning to his country of origin, he or she is subject to a second interview “to ascertain whether the person wishes to apply for refugee status in Jamaica”.
Where a person wants refugee status, he or she should be further interviewed and the information forwarded to the government’s refugee eligibility committee.
It seems difficult that the several steps involved in the process, if sincerely pursued, could be concluded in under a day.
However, one area of the policy allows an immigration officer, having initially concluded an individual an “undesirable immigrant”, and ahead of his/her request for refugee status, “to make arrangements for his/her immediate removal” from Jamaica.
That provides a potential loophole for the quick removal of a shell-shocked individual, before he/she has a real opportunity to fathom his/her circumstances.
Hopefully, that’s not what happened last week, although the removal of the 36 Haitians appeared to bear the hallmark of Nicodemus being on the job in the dead of night. Which is not how we are expected to treat neighbours, especially if they are also kith and kin.