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Fred Mitchell MP
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration
Business Outlook Seminar
29th January 2015
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I thank you for this invitation to speak today on Immigration matters.
The Prime Minister of The Bahamas speaking in San Jose, Costa Rica at the annual summit of CELAC leaders had this to say in his opening statement:
“The Bahamas wishes also to have a focused and candid discussion on migration. Our country suffers from the ill effects of irregular migration. We think that within this forum, the issue ought to be addressed as to how all countries can take steps to curb irregular migration and how we can work together to stop it and to ensure where there is migration it is orderly lawful and safe.”
That is the remit of the Department of Immigration and we announced two policies in pursuance of that remit which came into effect on 1st November last year. The first is that no applications for first time work permit holders will be accepted in this country from someone who does not have legal status without it being certified that the person has been seen by our consular office in his home country. This is to send out a signal to people who think they can just hop on a boat and come to the Bahamas and a friendly employer will simply get you straight. That should have stopped.
Secondly, everyone who is a non- national who does not have a passport should get one and they will have to have evidence either of a work permit or a residency permit to show they have a right to be in The Bahamas. This applies even to people who were born here of non-Bahamian parents. They are not by our laws citizens of The Bahamas. The Certificate of Identity which was previously issued to people in that category will no longer be issued, save in fulfillment of our international obligations.
You will remember earlier that we announced that as of March of last year we were going to stop issuing permits for gardeners and maids. That caused a slight uproar and not the popular support this present policy has.
However, it is a fact that unemployment can be seriously addressed if we stop doling out thousands of applications for live-in maids, maids, gardeners and labourers. But many Bahamians, particularly those in the middle class say that that Bahamians don’t want to do those jobs and so it continues.
Remember that the principle is that work permits are only to be issued where there is no Bahamian available for the job. Whether a Bahamian is available or not is a decision and function of the Ministry of Labour.
The philosophical basis of all that we do is the fact that migration is a natural state of mankind. Mankind has been doing it for eons. If you could not make it in the place where to you lived, you simply moved to another place. Today, the only caveat is that the movement must be documented. This is for the safety and security of the nation state.
The Bahamas has an obligation to be sure that it knows who lives within its borders and that its territory is not being used as a staging point for unlawful activity that would destabilize its neighbours.
In addition, there is the concern that the cultural identity and integrity of the country is preserved.
We all know that The Bahamas does not have all the skills within its borders to perform all the jobs that are required here. That means labour has to be imported to make up the shortfall. Secondly, we know that one of the important intangibles that we have to offer to the world is the right to live here. This is simply a beautiful place to live. We know that living here for reasons of climate, geography and finances makes The Bahamas an attractive place to be.
The question for the Department of Immigration, the Government more generally and our people is at what price point to extract the premium for the right to live here, in what numbers and under what circumstances.
Most advocates say that the offer to live here at a price, should stop at the level of permanent residence with the possible right to work, and that as presently priced, the right to live here as a permanent resident is underpriced and therefore undervalued. Considerable work has already been done on rectifying this pricing structure as we speak and the question is when we can convince the exchequer and the wider government that this is a sensible direction within which to move.
The present $10,000 per year fee for permanent residence is considered too low. While there has been some discussion in the civil society about economic citizenship, the idea has not found wide currency in the country and the government.
I am certain that you will hear more on this subject from the new Trade Minister Hope Strachan as she finds her way in her new office. However, I am confident that there is a new regime and pricing structure coming in the not too distant future with regard to the various resident products of the financial services sector.
That discussion however deals largely with the high end resident non Bahamian in The Bahamas.
The more vexing question and the one which has exercised most public attention over the last months is that of illegal or irregular migration, particularly at the lower end of the socio economic ladder. You have thousands of people who jump on rickety boats each year from the south of us and breach our borders. Add to that people masking themselves as political refugees from Cuba and a smattering of others from other states who seek to smuggle themselves into the United States. Last year we repatriated 5841 such souls at a cost of 32,000 dollars per trip and an annual budget of 1.5 million dollars. That budget has proven to be insufficient to cover the actual costs of repatriation.
In both the case of the documented and the undocumented worker, there is the issue of the efficiency with which this is all exercised.
The regular migrants and their would- be employers complain of slow services by the Department. In the two years that I have been on the job there has unfortunately been no appreciable change in the speed or efficiency with which the processing of applications has taken place, even as the application process has become more difficult with new rules. This is not for lack of trying but there appears to be certain management cultural structural issues which defy rational thinking and attempts at change.
The issue is in part the lack of manpower and the lack of equipment and the lack of money. We think that properly applied money, equipment and manpower can resolve these delivery issues but we have a long way to go. There is also a need for a cultural change. The conundrum is that we believe that there is money to be found if only the pricing point to which I referred is adjusted to accurately reflect the cost of the service but there is slow acceptance in the wider society and in the bureaucracy that this is the answer.
We have received recently in this direction permission to increase the visa fees which will more accurately reflect the cost of the service with effect from 1st February. That is the point to which we ought to get with regard to all government services. The price ought to accurately reflect the cost of the delivery of the service. You will then be able to fund all the inputs and there can be no excuse for the lack of timely and rational delivery of the product or service.
Indeed, one easy example is to be able to charge a premium for a rush or emergency service.
Today, sad to say if you pay your fees to get a work permit application it often takes six weeks before you have the actual work permit in your hands.
We continue to struggle with management issues which are so far not easily solved.
Forgive me however if I take the opportunity to speak now to a wider remit that of the management issues which face this country, its future and how we are to deal with it. The solution to immigration as are many other public policy issues lies with management and resources. The two are intertwined. I will submit during this presentation that we have a management deficit in the country. We are poorly served in public administration and if we do not solve this problem we are going to continue to be mired in slow growth and frustration by the public with the services which they are offered by government.
I am a politician as you know and everything that I do is looking toward the next general election and whether we can succeed in that election. I argue that what our country needs is continuity in the government. It makes for greater stability and better long term planning. We do not lurch from place to place every five years. That is the great magic of Singapore and of Japan.
I think it can be done without the authoritarianism but by an effective public administration which is dedicated to efficiency and long term planning. If we get this fixed, this will help to make the political case for the continuity and incumbency. Any governmental executive of The Bahamas of either party ought to feel confident that when they come to office, the public administration will carry out their policies with efficiency and without fear or favour.
My thinking is that this theme of a more efficient public administration plays exactly to the great group of centrists that elected us in the last general election: rather than playing to the extremes, we need to play to the middle.
A Report in the Business Section of The Tribune on 19 January about poverty, the connection to the failure of getting an education and the skill set was an interesting article. It was based on a report by the Inter-American Development Bank and it said that people who are poor have a poor chance of getting a proper education. Thus the need to fight poverty. I am now lobbying within the government to consider implementing across the public administration a livable wage for our employees. You have to ask yourself whether it is conscionable to pay a minimum wage of 210 dollars a week when it appears to many no one can live off 210 dollars per week in this country.
As a representative, I see the results of poverty, joblessness and hopelessness every week in my constituency office. The minimum qualification for the government service is five BJCs: an 8th grade exam which you take when you are 14 years old. Yet, people who are perfectly capable and intelligent went through school and could not get five BJCs, the minimum qualifying standard of the public service– an eighth grade education. Some could not take the exams because of lack of funds. One woman told me her mother had to make a decision between herself and her brother. The mother could only afford to pay for her brother and so she did not take the BJCs. Her mother did not know that if you cannot afford to pay, the Government would have made it possible.
There is a connection in my view between this missed education and the ability of the country to execute complex maneuvers and the inability to grasp the concepts which a sophisticated public administration requires. A good basic education is supposed to be provided to you and then you should easily pass the BJC and BGSCE exams. That then equips you intellectually to deal with the complex concepts of managing your life and ultimately the national life.
I sympathize with the Minister of Education who is struggling with what we do to correct this. Very valued work is being done in the National Training School as well. The Education Minister is also implementing a national finishing exam for the school system. Too many people today are falling through the cracks and do not have the skills to put them into productive work, leaving them angry and bitter at politicians and themselves.
Clearly, it has little to do with native intelligence but training and schooling.
Politicians have a mass mobilizing function and are not meant to be bogged down with the public administration. Their remit to design policies for the peace, order and good government of the country. We have to ask ourselves the question: why when an instruction is given or a decision taken in this country it is either carried out slowly or improperly or not carried out at all.
The other factor is that a public where there is a training or education deficit is too easily manipulated by gossip and not by informed opinions. One man who studies these things told me that by his count the same 18 people call the talk shows every day and these are the people who drive what passes for public opinion; the chronic callers.
This then comes back to the thoughts on immigration.
Despite all that we have said, the opponents of the policies are often able to manipulate public opinion and build up opposition where none is necessary
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. It often defies logic or rational explanation. The truth does not work, sad to say. Suffice it to say, the policies continue despite that and they continue to have the broad support of the Bahamian public.
New rules are going to be introduced. For example, all schools will be asked to be sure that any foreign national in a Bahamian school has a student permit to be in The Bahamas as of the opening of the fall term. The annual permit costs 25 dollars with a 100 dollar processing fee and every non-national should have one, including those born here to non-national parents.
In a few months, we hope to attach conditions to the work permits which will say that if you get a work permit you also have to have health insurance for the worker and adequate housing. If you cannot demonstrate that, then the work permit will not be granted. This is being put out for discussion but it is near to completion.
None of these policies can be successful if they do not have the broad support of the Bahamian people. It is in fora like this that we seek that support. We think that immigration reform is underway and we look forward to serving the public in the national interest.
I would like then to summarize where we are:
There is a need for a national discussion on immigration matters, including citizenship.
There is a need for a manpower study to be done and one is to be commissioned shortly to project out into the future the numbers for the immigration dept tripling its size within three years and what are the budgetary implications.
There is a need to improve dramatically the efficiency of the department in processing applications and providing the public with the ability to track them including the vexingly slow citizenship applications. We thank the Association of International Banks and Trust Companies for their offer of help with equipment.
A decision was taken by the Cabinet this month to order the next generation of equipment to improve dramatically passport, work permit, residency and citizenship applications, entry procedures at the border, the ability of different law enforcement agencies to talk to talk to one another; electronic entry at the gate in answer to the complaints of processing at the border at LPIA taking too long.
There will be a requirement for everyone in school come September to have a passport and residency stamp
Come April I hope there will be the requirement for health and insurance and adequate housing for foreign nationals who get work permits.
There are major operations coming in Abaco within sixty days to help stem the tide of illegal migration there.
We need the help assistance and support of the public and thank them for the support which they have given us.
In this connection, I am seeking to establish a public affairs unit within the Department of Immigration. Here again, there is a culture which has to change. Too many times the answer has to come from the minister when the questions and issues which draw public’s attention should be routinely dealt with by an official of the Department. My view is that the Department has nothing to hide and that all relevant facts, subject to national security and privacy issues ought to be available on request.
Lastly, we applaud all that is being done in the Ministry of Education and in the Ministry of Labour to address the training and education deficits in the country which ultimately will help change the culture over “deliberativeness” in our public administration.
Thank you for listening to me.