Without a Legal Home: Statelessness in the Bahamas

Photo Credit: Flickr user John Hilliard

Thousands of Bahamian-born persons of Haitian descent are stateless. Although the stateless situation of Dominican-born persons of Haitian descent has been well-documented, the situation of Bahamian-born persons of Haitian descent remains largely unstudied, limiting the international community’s understanding of the gravity of this problem. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an individual is stateless when he or she is without a nationality or citizenship to any state. Statelessness occurs when a person never obtains citizenship in his or her birth country or when a person loses citizenship in one country and has no claim to citizenship in another country. Estimates of approximately 30,000 to 50,000 Haitian immigrants and their children are denied Bahamian citizenship—despite some being born in the Bahamas—and are also without citizenship in Haiti, leaving them in a state of limbo with no place to officially call home. Children born to non-Bahamian parents or to a Bahamian mother and a non-Bahamian father born outside the Bahamas are not able to automatically obtain citizenship upon birth. These children, even though born in the Bahamas, cannot apply for citizenship until their eighteenth birthday. Furthermore, due to significant hurdles and long waiting times during the application process, generations are reportedly left de facto stateless.

Nationality is the legal bond an individual has with a state. Living without a nationality has dire consequences to individuals because it prevents them from benefiting from the protection and assistance of the government. As a result of Bahamian exclusionary policies, individuals are often marginalized and live in extreme poverty, without access to basic services, including education, health services, and legal processes for instances of abuse and exploitation. A large number of Haitians and Haitian Bahamians who cannot afford their own property in the Bahamas live in shantytowns, all without running water, electricity, or waste management. Tensions in society are mounting as Haitians and Haitian Bahamians are unjustifiably blamed for the country’s crime problems and lack of resources.

The Bahamas is a State Party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which provides in Article 7 that a child shall have the right to acquire a nationality immediately after birth. Upon ratification, however, the government made specific reservations relating to Article 2, which requires States Parties to ensure that each child enjoys the rights enumerated in the Convention irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s national, ethnic or social origin, “insofar as the provision relates to the conferment of citizenship upon a child.” Nonetheless, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in Articles 15 and 24 respectively, provide every child the right to nationality. In 2008, the Bahamas ratified the ICCPR, requiring the country to fully implement the provisions into domestic law.

As a State Party to the ICCPR, the Bahamas is legally obligated to ensure children born in the Bahamas have access to a nationality. The government of the Bahamas has argued that those born in the Bahamas to non-Bahamian parents can acquire citizenship elsewhere or can wait until their eighteenth birthday, options they allege fulfill their obligations. However, for many, obtaining citizenship elsewhere proves futile or, more importantly, unreasonable since the Bahamas is the only country they have ever known. Additionally, some applicants wait years to be approved for Bahamian citizenship.

Countries like the United States that have birthright citizenship laws guarantee citizenship and equal standing under the law to all who are born in the United States. A number of countries have moved away from automatically guaranteeing citizenship upon birth—including Australia, Ireland, India, the United Kingdom, and the Dominican Republic—contributing to the already-existing and serious problem of statelessness. Countries that experience high volumes of immigrants who tend to remain in the country long-term, like the Bahamas, may need to consider nationality legislation in accordance with international human rights norms.

In order to fulfill its obligations under the ICCPR, the Bahamian government must ensure all persons born on its soil have access to a nationality. Through effective nationality legislation and a universal birth registration, Bahamian peoples’ right to nationality will be protected against potentially discriminatory practices which target minority groups. If children are registered upon birth, all Bahamians—regardless of descent—will have access to birth papers and therefore will not be prevented from enjoying equal access to opportunities, including in the fields of education, employment, and health.

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