GREAT ABACO, The Bahamas — Yvener Isma keeps telling himself, “if the storm didn’t break me, this won’t break me,” but it’s getting harder and harder to believe. He feels like he’s dying inside, slowly, and he blames his government.
Nearly two months ago, the 27-year-old was clinging to a tree as Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas, holding his girlfriend, Diana, as floods and winds propelled shipping containers straight into them. The couple made it out of Marsh Harbour “by the grace of God,” but not before Diana — who only wanted her first name used — broke her wrist, twisted her ankle, and tore a bone-deep hole in her shin. The 19-year-old from Haiti is still healing, but her injuries are the least of her worries.
In the past three weeks, the Bahamian government has detained and requested to deport more than 340 Haitians who lack proper papers, according to a Haitian government official. The UN confirmed 112 of those people arrived at Port-au-Prince.
The official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, alleges Bahamian officials are continuing to deport large numbers of Haitians without properly following protocol and transporting them to a region that “is not fit right now to send them to.”
Port-au-Prince continues to be “locked down” due to protests, but the official said the deportation requests keep coming — “and the numbers are getting higher and higher.”
Diana immigrated to the Bahamas from Haiti illegally with her father four years ago to earn money to send back to her mother and siblings, but the hurricane left her and Isma homeless. With no money or family nearby, they’ve been staying in a shelter operated by a government that has threatened to deport all undocumented immigrants.
“She will ask me, ‘Suppose if I get locked up? What would you do?’ And I tell her I will go with her, but we try not to talk about it,” said Isma, who was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents. “But I know one morning we are going to wake up, and there’s going to be Defence Force in here asking for our status and then putting us on buses.”
The couple is among the more than 40,400 Haitians living across the Bahamas, according to the United Nations, making them the country’s largest immigrant population. Experts, though, say the number is likely much higher because it does not account for what the UN calls "stateless people" like Isma, who struggle with not officially belonging anywhere until they can apply for citizenship in the Bahamas when they turn 18.
However, Bahamian foreign affairs officials noted that there is a clause in Haiti's immigration act that still defines individuals born outside the country as "Haitian."
Driven by violence, government unrest, and the lasting impacts of a historic earthquake in 2010, scores of Haitians have been settling in Bahamian shantytowns and working as cleaners, cooks, gardeners, and day laborers. But their presence in the Bahamas has long been scorned and stigmatized. Government officials have been openly xenophobic, enacting strict immigration laws that critics say are geared to facilitate deportations.
However, since Dorian, Haitians say the mistreatment has intensified. As the global spotlight fades, critics say Bahamian officials have ramped up their aggressive campaign to target, harass, and deport the undocumented immigrants. As a result, hundreds have fled official shelters to hide in bushes, tents, and crowded churches.
“What this hurricane has done is exposed our country’s distaste for illegal immigrants and illegal Haitians,” said Prodesta Moore, the president and executive director of the Bahamas Urban Youth Development Center and an active figure in her country’s recovery efforts. “This storm happened and people were forced to come to the forefront through evacuations, and it’s easier for people to identify who you are. It is a very tense, fearful time for many people.”
Authorities have been conducting daily raids, pulling men off bikes on the street and scouring work sites, demanding papers. While on Great Abaco island, the main government presence BuzzFeed News witnessed was in the form of immigration officers driving in white Jeeps and an old bus, slowly rolling through Haitian neighborhoods, stopping and questioning people, and then taking them to a detention center and, eventually, the airport.
Moore said the sweeps have “definitely increased” since the storm. She had been working with a pastor in Nassau to help provide about 200 meals a day for evacuees living in a church in a Haitian village.
“He would come every day like clockwork and then he never showed up. I tried calling but no answer. Three days later his wife called me and said he had been detained,” she said. “He was scheduled to be deported the following Tuesday. We are now concerned about how we are going to feed these people. [Immigration] made the rounds before, but it wasn’t ongoing like it is now. Every day, you are hearing about hundreds of people rounded up. I think they are using this as an opportunity and should have waited until the dust settles or give these people 12 months to get themselves together.
However, Minister of Immigration Elsworth Johnson denied that his government was ramping up deportations as part of an immigration crackdown, contending they have a duty to protect residents from drugs, child and sex traffickers, and other criminals. In fact, authorities have merely been returning to business as usual, he said.
“There has been no change in our application of the law. These were issues before the storm we were dealing with,” he said. “We are a country of laws, and the reality is if you aren’t properly documented, like most other countries, the law allows us in a humane way to deal with that. And we are enforcing our laws in accordance with international human rights standards.”
Johnson noted that the prime minister suspended deportations for about three weeks immediately after the storm. Last week, ministers approved an order waiving fees for replacing lost or damaged passports, driver’s licenses, ID cards, and work permits.
“We have laws that must be respected while still respecting the human rights and dignity of a person,” he said. “But you cannot suspend the rules because of a catastrophe. That is the time when you enforce the rule of law and you must make the determination in the best interest of your country. It cannot be a free-for-all. We lifted certain laws for a period of time, but the hurricane is over.”
Since Dorian decimated their community, Isma and Diana have been living alongside about 700 other survivors at the Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium complex in Nassau, New Providence, the nation’s bustling capital and a world away from their ruined home in Marsh Harbour, on Great Abaco island. The gym has become the primary shelter for displaced residents, 75% of whom are Haitian, according to aid groups.
Police have been detaining dozens of immigrants in raids during lunch breaks and late at night, with stories of arrests ricocheting across Facebook and WhatsApp groups.
After a series of arrests in early October, which included 11 minors, the UN’s immigration organization said in a report obtained by BuzzFeed News that in a span of a few days, 600 evacuees left shelters out of fear. What’s more, the government has been consolidating shelters, funneling more survivors into the gym complex in what’s seen by many Haitians as an easy, inevitable way to “round them up.”
“We got a lot of little kids here,” Isma gestured toward the beige building. “Majority of their parents don’t have status, so soon they are all going to be in Haiti.”
Even though Isma was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents and applied for citizenship when he was 19, he’s still stateless. Diana is much worse off. The Bahamas has no record that she exists. She entered the country illegally and is now alone. Her father was deported a month before the storm.
“We are trapped,” Isma said. “But I just can’t pick up and leave her. There is nowhere to go.”
Sleeping on cots and mattresses in one room with hundreds of others is beginning to take an emotional, psychological, and physical toll on survivors. There is no privacy and the bathrooms are filthy and “full of shit,” Isma said, showing BuzzFeed News a video of clogged toilets and caution tape blocking off stalls. Last week, 300 people were treated for scabies after officials merged another shelter into the gym, likely causing the outbreak, a Ministry of Health report said. International health and aid groups have expressed concern over the deteriorating conditions.
Aid workers also say the government’s rhetoric and actions have created a hidden, incredibly vulnerable population of hurricane survivors who are too afraid to get help or necessary to help them start over.
“A lot of people were too afraid to come and thought we required documentation to treat them,” said Dr. Craig Chin, a team leader with International Medical Relief. “We tried to express to everyone that we saw that if they had people with them hiding in homes to get them into our clinic. But you could still tell there was a lot of skepticism as to whether we were with the government.”
The doctors have been working with a Haitian church a few miles away from the gym, conducting eye and blood pressure exams beneath the pulpit. The pastor’s wife, Julia Pierre, regularly hands out clothes to women and children who feel safe enough to secure a ride there.
“There was a girl, a woman, in the next bed to me and she go out and then she get locked up,” Mariala Joseph, a resident from Abaco now staying at the gym, said from a red cloth church pew. “She had her baby with her. The pastor tried to get her out, but they say, ‘no,’ she has to go to jail and then she get deported. She didn’t do nothing. It’s very hard, very hard.”
On a hot Tuesday afternoon, shy children, their parents, and elderly residents sat holding paper slips as they waited to see one of International Medical Relief’s nurses. The group set up a popup clinic in a shed off Cowpen Road, where a crowded Haitian shantytown has absorbed an unknown number of immigrant evacuees.
The group has been averaging about 200 patients a day, nearly 70% of whom were undocumented and from Abaco, the doctor said.
“I was briefed on the situation, with the Haitians, prior to going there,” he said. “But I had no idea how bad it was.”
The one, dark room in the AB Apostolic church starts to fill up around 5 p.m., when the men come back from working on rebuilding resorts, businesses, and houses, usually for about $8.75 an hour.
Like several other churches that survived the hurricane, the battered, worn-white building has been a refuge for dozens of Haitians who lived through Dorian and chose to stay on Abaco, living without power and sleeping crowded together. That was before the immigration officers came, demanding that the group here and at another church in Marsh Harbour clear out or risk deportation.
Although Johnson, the immigration minister, said he was unaware of officers descending on churches, he emphasized that they “are not legal shelters” and cannot be used as “a way to circumvent the law.”
“If we found these people saying this place is a shelter, then they have to ensure it has adequate protection measures and is fit for humans to live in,” he said. “Just because you say this place is a shelter doesn’t mean it is right to house people. The law says it is not a shelter.”
The evening before the deadline, sitting on the lawn next to their red tents and sagging clothing lines, AB church residents spooned rice onto plates and talked about what to do. They swapped stories about the white immigration bus, about who got picked up that day — who got lucky, who didn’t — and where they might hide when the white vehicles come back.
Tony Monestime — who said he has already been roughed up by immigration officers — had already seen two people taken from the church.
“The situation is very bad,” he said.
When asked where they will go when immigration officers do come, Monestime and the others shook their heads: “We don’t have nowhere to go.”
The next morning, the church’s yard was empty, tents open and abandoned, all their belongings still inside.