The immigration debate, pt.1


Dear Editor,

The landing of a Haitian sloop a few weeks ago on the south-eastern coast of New Providence, near Adelaide, touched off a firestorm of commentary on the immigration problem in The Bahamas. To be sure, this was not the first Haitian sloop to make landfall in New Providence – one sailed right up into Nassau Harbour a few years ago before being detected and intercepted. But this incident excited the imagination of Bahamians for two main reasons: the relative proximity of the landing to the Defence Force Coral Harbour Base, and because it occurred smack dab in the middle of the government’s announced intention to repatriate illegal immigrants (mainly Haitians) by year’s end.

Few topics are as polarizing as immigration and, true to form, the resulting debate has elicited diametrically opposed views of the issues – sometimes based on incorrect factual and legal assumptions – rival ways for tackling the problem, and copious blame-laying. Much of this dialectic is grist to the mill, but there are also some valuable suggestions that should not be ignored. In proffering a few thoughts on this issue, my intention is to be a little bit more forensic, and hopefully add a viewpoint informed by some knowledge of the operational and legal context of the problem.

The operational context

Without a doubt, the Defence Force can do far more to interdict and apprehend illegal immigrants, and the case for this is clearly made out below. But there are several myths that need to be debunked by way of explanation for the RBDF’s response (or lack of it) to this particular incident, and generally with regard to the illegal immigration “problem” plaguing The Bahamas. And, as will become abundantly clear, this is not by way of excuse or apology for the Defence Force.

Firstly, the location of the landing in South West Bay, although described as a stone’s throw away from the Coral Harbour Base, is actually some 2.5 nautical miles (roughly 2.8 land miles) away from the base. Secondly, it took place in the dead of night, or early morning hours. To make the point, on a clear day, from a vantage point at or just above sea level, one can see roughly about three-four miles to the horizon. At night, visibility, unaided by any form of night-vision technology, is a few yards, and may be extended to a few hundred feet with advanced night-vision goggles.

Thus, there was no way for the Defence Force to detect this vessel by any visual means, or even by advanced night-vision equipment. I am not sure whether the RBDF now has night-vision equipment, but none existed during my time there.

Thirdly, a wooden sailing sloop is virtually undetectable by traditional maritime radars. Radars work by emitting electromagnetic (radio) waves from a transmitter, which “bounce” off a target and return to the receiver/transmitter. This allows the distance and relative location of the object to be calculated (distance away from radar being the time it takes for the radio waves to propagate and return, the relative speed of radio waves being a known factor). As sailing sloops are constructed almost completely of wood, with canvas sails, the radio waves dissipate and do not return a clear signal, such as one would get from a steel ship.

So, there was also no possibility to detect this vessel by radar. In any event, as far as I am aware, although its ships are fitted with radars, there has never been any ground-based coastal surveillance radars at Coral Harbour or anywhere on the coastline of New Providence. There are now powerful ground-based radars which use sophisticated technologies to detect small and uncooperative targets, such as the wooden sloops and boats used for smuggling (humans or drugs), but RBDF does not possess any of these. (More will be said of this later.)

Thirdly, access to the landing area in South West Bay, where the sloop came ashore, is through shallow shoal-infested waters, navigable only to small craft. Thus, even if the vessel had been detected, it would have made for a hazardous and dangerous interception at sea. Those of us with experience in these matters know that to approach a vessel overloaded with migrants in a small craft is a recipe for disaster. Some will either jump overboard in a desperate final attempt to reach shore, and risk drowning, or will rush to one side to board your vessel and risk capsizing both their vessel and your craft.

Another misconception has to do with the large numbers of persons the sloop is alleged to have carried. The typical Haitian sailing sloop is about 30-35 feet (the size of the sloop that landed), and maxed out can carry in excess of 100 persons, divided between the deck and the “hold” (interior of the vessel). I would therefore estimate that the vessel carried between 60-80 persons.

And no, contrary to the wild imaginings of some, this was no ghost vessel or a vessel planted by any conspiracy between immigration and the Defence Force!

It should readily be appreciated then, that the Defence Force did not idly sit by twiddling its thumbs and allowed a sloop filled with illegal immigrants to just meander by; there was no way of detecting such a vessel. That said, however, there is a lot more that can be done by the Defence Force to intercept such vessels, either at sea or at the point of making landfall.

And while doing so requires a mix of traditional low-cost methodologies and the use of some sophisticated technology, it does not extend to embracing some of the far-fetched ideas such as the use of satellite technology or aerostat balloons. Drone technology, which is proving useful in many law-enforcement contexts, while not prohibitively expensive, still requires significant human and technical expertise, and lacks the capacity to operate in all-weather conditions. It is, therefore, no panacea.

A simple and relatively low-cost strategy to minimize if not eliminate the landfall of Haitian vessels carrying illegal immigrants along the western and southern coasts of New Providence is the use of a combination of observation towers and coastal security radars. These towers could be strategically located along the coastline, and manned 24-7 by RBDF personnel equipped with powerful binoculars, and night vision goggles.

The observation posts could be augmented by a few ground-based radars (also mounted on platform or towers) which use a combination of advanced technologies specifically designed for the detection of small, slow-moving and uncooperative targets traditionally undetectable by conventional maritime radars. For example, some of these radars can detect a small wooden boat at a range of up to 6.8 miles way, at night, in rain and even in rough seas. These typically sell for a few million dollars each, and sufficient numbers to provide effective coastal surveillance could have been purchased for a fraction of the cost of Sandy Bottom, the recent project to acquire RBDF ships and complete other infrastructural developments. This is not to suggest that the RBDF was not desperately in need of a fleet upgrade, but effective law-enforcement requires both surface and aerial assets to respond to a scenario, and cost-effective ways of locating and identifying potential targets of interest to law enforcement.

These systems would allow for the detection and interception of any vessel which managed to escape earlier detection while moving up the island chain well before they could make landfall. A combination of observation/radar surveillance has been used for many years successfully by countries which share contiguous land borders (e.g., by Israel on the Palestinian border), or which have excessively long coastlines, to deal with security threats.

However, while these measures must be put in place around the coast of New Providence, for the reasons given below, it is somewhat akin to stationing an ambulance at the base of a cliff, as opposed to erecting a fence at the top.

The sovereign maritime territory of The Bahamas covers some 80,000 square nautical miles (precisely 79,205.627 square miles, as measured by specialized GIS software), and hundreds of miles of porous coastline. Once a Haitian vessel gets beyond Inagua, it can spread out into this vast territory and avoid detection by hugging the coastline as it makes the five- to 10-day journey up the island chain, depending on how the trade winds blow. Currently, except for a random encounter by a patrol vessel or a tip-off, the only way to spot such vessels is from the air, and this requires the conduct of frequent aerial patrols of the entire southern Bahamas.

By contrast, the passage between the north-western tip of Haiti and the south-eastern tip of Cuba (the Windward Passage) is only 80 miles wide, and Great Inagua is only about 60 miles from the northern coast of Haiti. The majority of Haitian immigrants originate from the northern coast of Haiti and these are the only egress points. Thus, the most effective strategy to control the exodus of Haitians from Haiti is to strategically focus interdiction and apprehension efforts on these choke-points.

Constant monitoring of this area could be facilitated by erecting a similar observation post and a coastal security radar station at Great Inagua, and at strategic locations in several of the southernmost islands which border the route normally traced by Haitian vessels. In fact, the existing Great Inagua Lighthouse at Matthew Town, which towers 113 feet and boasts a visibility of nearly 17 miles to sea, would be ideal for this purpose. (The three-four miles out to sea that can be seen from sea level basically quadruples for an elevation of 100 feet.)
Further, maritime assets could be strategically deployed to blockade these passages, especially during the months when illegal migration is expected to increase (e.g., during the summer months when the trade winds blow fair, and towards the end of the year, just before the arrival of the winter weather).

This tactic has been used with extreme efficacy by the U.S. Coast Guard when political or other events in Haiti generated predictable mass exodus of migrants. For example, from early 1993 to the end of 1994, the USCG had several cutters stationed in the Windward Passage (operation “Able Manner”) which interdicted more than 25,000 Haitians, and in which the RBDF participated. These migrants were processed at sea and repatriated.

Further, Inagua should be the site for a satellite (if not the main) detention center, where immigrants, intercepted in the early stages of their journey, could be processed and evaluated for potential refugee claims and repatriated. This would significantly cut down on the administrative and logistical expenses associated with keeping persons detained for long periods of time, and the possible legal exposure by the government.

– Loren Klein

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