Stabroeknews-editorial-August 08 2019

The matter of the number of Haitians entering Guyana has raised its head again. The issue first became one of national interest last year after it was revealed to the Foreign Affairs Sectoral Committee in Parliament that in 2017 a total of 3,515 Haitians had arrived in Guyana, but only 291 were on record as having left. Up to April last year, the Committee was informed, 1,238 of them had entered but only 85 had left.

The question was, of course, where did they go, or was it that they were hiding in some far-flung corner of this nation under the radar of the authorities. While a modest number may have found residence here, most people recognize that it is difficult to secrete substantial numbers of outsiders in this country unnoticed, even if they are dispersed, so the assumption was that they were in transit to a Francophone nation like French Guiana. Following a report in this newspaper a little over a month ago, however, it now appears that they probably come here en route to Brazil, possibly with the intention of working their way north in order eventually to enter the United States. If so, they have no idea of the nature of the challenges they will face.

The resurgent interest in the Haitians relates to the fact that this is an election year, with the inevitable inferences in relation to electoral malpractice being drawn by those of a suspicious disposition. While there is no particular evidence that at this point in time sizeable numbers of Haitians are staying on in Guyana, it is unacceptable for the authorities to turn a blind eye to possible infractions. This phenomenon must be thoroughly investigated by the Police and the ring involved must be broken up and its leaders prosecuted. The police must also look for any attempt to provide Haitians with fake documentation.

Our own report relates the experience of a bus driver who transported 16 Haitians from the Cheddi Jagan airport to Lethem on the border with Brazil. He was driving a 42 bus, which is a Timehri bus, and is not authorised to traverse the trail to Lethem. That, however, does not seem to have bothered any of the police officers manning the checkpoints along the way.

This newspaper was told that upon arrival at the airport, the Haitians were transported to a hotel and bar, where they rested for several hours. When it was dark, the group boarded the minibus and began their journey. They were stopped at checkpoints at Bamia on the Soesdyke-Linden Highway, and later at Mabura, Kurupukari and Corkwood. It is alleged that the ranks at the checkpoints took as much as US$200 from each member of the group to allow them to proceed on their way.

The driver told Stabroek News that when they were almost in Lethem he called the man who had contracted him and was given a number for someone else, who later met him near a gas station in the town. From there, they proceeded to an enclosed area where the passengers disembarked. He also said that he later learnt from the brother of the person who had hired him that the Haitians were to be transported during the wee hours of the morning to Brazil.

We reported too that the driver appeared to be disturbed at the inability of the Haitians to buy food for themselves. He recalled that they did not have much food in their possession and never bought anything at any shop along the route. The man said that he concluded they had opted not to spend money to ensure that they had enough to pay the police.

As was stated in our story, this account is endorsed by the contents of a report from the Spain-based NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders, which lists Haitians as being among those of foreign nationality using Guyana as an exit point to reach the US.  “This tortuous path inevitably passes through a route of plunder and torture, travelling from Guyana to Brazil, then to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and finally to the border with the United States,” the report states. In Guyana, it details exploitation at the hands of the police, and speaks about threats of deportation, verbal aggression and humiliation if money is not paid.

PPP executive Ms Gail Teixeira since 2018 has been insisting that accounts relating to the Haitians provide evidence of human trafficking, although this has been vigorously denied by Minister of Citizenship Winston Felix. As we pointed out last year, there is a distinction between human trafficking and people smuggling, and in most instances (there are no doubt exceptions) the Haitian case would appear to fall into the category of the latter.

However, Minister Felix, never receptive to suggestions that his department might have shortcomings, has denied that smuggling too might be a problem.  In a demand to see the evidence he said, “How are we confirming that? We are getting anecdotal stories that persons are being smuggled [but] somebody has got to convince me that there is smuggling because smuggling has to be done covertly.” It might be observed that the necessity of clandestineness will depend on what is being smuggled and where the smuggling is taking place. Covertness will not be so necessary in the case of people, particularly if they come from the region.

Furthermore, he said that from his understanding, Haitians who arrive in Guyana are receiving guidance from some of their fellow countrymen who are already here. “If the people land and those who are here organise to move them from one point to the other, is that smuggling?” he asked. This is, of course, to ignore the fact that it requires facilitators who are prepared to operate outside the scope of the immigration laws, as well as corrupt police officials in order to organise such a transit. And it does him no credit that he is prepared to ignore such illegalities; corruption in any corner of the system is infectious.

Fortunately, Commander of ‘E’ Division Linden Lord was a good deal less dismissive. He confirmed to this newspaper that he had received a report about the matter of the police at the checkpoints taking bribes, and had already commenced an investigation. “Ranks are writing their statements and we are investigating it to see if there is any truth in it,” he was quoted as saying. When all the statements are collected a report will be compiled, he said, and sent to the police legal advisor. Stories about corruption at checkpoints have been around for years, so at least there is finally some progress in so far as the current allegations are being investigated.

The Commander admitted that while the police should have checked whether a 42 bus had a permit to drive on the Lethem route, it was possible for this to happen without the absence of the permit being made an issue. Nevertheless, “they erred by not doing that,” he said.

Haiti is a member of Caricom, and its citizens have the same rights as all citizens of the community. While they are entering the country legally, they are probably leaving it illegally, not because that is necessary from this side of the Takutu, but because they do not anticipate being allowed to enter Brazil legally.  They therefore find a crossing point across the river which is not encumbered by officialdom. This may be the hold the people smugglers have on them.

Where illegal crossing is concerned, Minister Felix had this to say to the newspaper: “We are working at various levels to deal with the issue of illegal crossing, both the Brazilians and ours have met at different times and we are discussing the issues. The Brazilians are as concerned as we are [and] I am assuming that they have more resources but it ain’t stopping.”

While given the geography of the area it is difficult, as Mr Felix says, to prevent illegal crossings, at least some investigation should be mounted into people smuggling operations here.  Those who organise the smuggling through this country, at least, are probably Guyanese citizens for the most part, and they will be smuggling other nationalities apart from Haitians, such as Cubans. Whoever is being smuggled, however, we should not be tolerating the exploitation of foreigners in our country; the matter needs to be investigated.