The island of Abaco, viewed from above, looks like a drowned sandbar, hardly terrestrial at all. It’s one of the northernmost islands of the Bahamian archipelago, which sits atop a wide limestone platform just a few dozen feet under the sea. From space, its pure white sands and fluorescent waters glow like an emerald necklace, visually striking against the muted browns and greens of the rest of the planet. Viewed from the oval window of my flight, slicing through a cloudless sky, the waters shimmered in dazzling shades of lapis lazuli.
On the ground, the scene looks more like a Mad Max movie. When I arrived this year, several months had passed since Hurricane Dorian, the Category 5 monster storm that pummeled the northern Bahamas in September 2019. The road leading out of the island’s small airport was clear but lined on either side by mounds of rubble punctuated by alien-looking stalks, the remains of pine trees stripped of leaves and branches by Dorian’s gales. The built environment had been pulverized into varying-size piles of debris, destroying the visual cues—signs, colors, the shapes of buildings—that mark the distinctions among neighborhoods, commercial districts, and open lands. It had a discombobulating effect. Now and then, a heavy vehicle of some kind lurched by at speed, barreling down the empty roads.
Before the storm, the northern islands of the Bahamas were home to a polyglot population consisting of wealthy American transplants; English-speaking descendants of British colonists, Southern planters, and enslaved Africans; and a sizable but poorly documented population of Kreyol-speaking people from Haiti, who were drawn by the islands’ once-plentiful jobs in the tourism industry as well as their alluring proximity to Florida and its thriving Haitian communities. People from Haiti are the largest minority group in the Bahamas, accounting for as much as one-fifth of the population, according to some estimates, including thousands on Abaco. Many of them lived in shantytowns.
But those informal settlements, which once sprawled across Abaco, no longer exist. Frankie Fleuridor, an affable DJ and father of three who served as my interpreter, had lived in one of the largest, called the Mudd because it was on what was once a swamp. He described a place, visible in pre-Dorian video footage, where bare-chested children ran down footpaths between small brightly painted houses with numbers hand-drawn on their walls, their doorways strung with scraps of bedsheets in lieu of doors. Inside, women styled one another’s hair while young men wearing tattered tank tops lounged on the low flat roofs in the bleached sunshine. In the evenings, elderly men gathered for games of dominoes next to the scruffy lot kids used as an impromptu soccer pitch.
When I arrived, not even a stick of debris remained of the Mudd—or any of the other Haitian shantytowns that were in Abaco before the storm. Thanks to a combination of historical neglect, forced displacement, and a collective failure on the part of the international community to address the needs of people vulnerable to climate disasters, these communities have been erased from the landscape.
The people who lived in Abaco’s shantytowns did not evacuate the island before the storm, often because they could not. Thousands of them died as a result, according to estimates by epidemiologist Vincent Degennaro. The traumatized survivors were barred by the government from rebuilding and were targeted by stepped-up immigration raids. Many were deported to Haiti. Others, deprived of shelter and aid, went into hiding on the island. When I drove to the site of their former neighborhoods, I found bare expanses of dirt surrounded by newly erected fencing. Yellow bulldozers growled nearby.
In part, the devastation of Abaco’s Haitian communities was shaped by specific circumstances. Residents had been trapped on the most exposed parts of the island by deep historical forces tipped into motion centuries earlier. Their erasure was also the result of a more recent failure that implicates many more of us around the planet—and could befall millions of people in the years to come.
Around the world, policy-makers and governments recognize that as the climate crisis deepens, the marginalized communities of low-lying island nations will bear the heaviest burdens. Thanks to the hydrocarbon-fueled lifestyles of the wealthy around the world, as many as 200 million people will need to leave their homes as seas rise, deserts spread, and increasingly severe storms strike, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration. Those people’s survival hinges on bilateral and regional agreements that would allow them to move legally across borders to reach safer ground before or after disasters unfold. But even as the risk of catastrophic climate disasters has risen, efforts to build an infrastructure to facilitate such movements have collapsed.
The result is that marginalized populations around the world have been left trapped and exposed to climate disasters, providing opportunities for indifferent, underresourced, or patently sectarian government officials to realize brutal policy goals impossible to achieve during normal times.
This is what has befallen the Haitian residents of the Bahamas. Subjected to the hurricane’s ravages and the campaign against them that followed, they have faced the current season of climate fury and the spread of the novel coronavirus in vulnerable positions. Their homes have been destroyed and their social networks shattered by deportations. Little protects them besides the translucent layers of polypropylene tents, surreptitiously donated and strung up in hidden corners of the islands.
People have been moving between the island nations of Haiti and the Bahamas, separated by less than 80 miles of turquoise water, since pre-Colombian times. But as their postcolonial political and economic trajectories diverged, the threads between the two nations weakened, and their once-reciprocal relationship deteriorated. In Haiti a revolution led by the island’s enslaved population overthrew French colonial rule in 1804, making it “the most revolutionary revolution in an age of them,” as historian Edward E. Baptist has described it. Many of the French fled, including to the Bahamas, where they joined the Southern planters who settled there after fleeing the American Revolution. Fearful of a similar insurrection, they pursued a steady policy of divide and conquer, urging the Black Bahamians they ruled to view Black Haitians as inherently dangerous and bloodthirsty. They offered rewards to spy on Haitians and report their misconduct to the authorities, historian Keith Tinker wrote.
By the mid-20th century, the Bahamas had started to capitalize on its proximity to the United States by remaking itself as a convenient destination for mass tourism. Haiti, meanwhile, was on a different path, destabilized by punishing “reparations” imposed by France, decades of US occupation and intervention, and a succession of brutal US-backed dictatorships. Beginning in the 1970s, Haitians streamed out of the country in search of refuge.
They found little in their immediate neighbor to the north. By the time the white minority in the Bahamas finally surrendered political power in 1973, the Bahamian news media routinely depicted Haitians as barbaric, backward, and a threat to stability and prosperity. Some years earlier, the government embarked on a program of “Bahamianization,” which aimed to remake the Bahamas for Bahamians, in part by excluding unwanted Haitians, Tinker wrote. A new racial order and plantation economy emerged, with whites and Afro-Bahamians on top and Haitians occupying the lowest rung. Political leaders enacted a series of byzantine citizenship laws to target people of Haitian descent, limiting birthright citizenship in ways that rendered generations of children born of Haitian parents stateless and preventing many from entering universities and trade schools. Bahamian detention centers brimmed with Haitian migrants awaiting deportation.
As the primary landmass between the United States and Haiti, the Bahamas also proved critical to US efforts to prevent Haitians from reaching its shores. Steeped in their own long-standing anti-Haitian bias, US policy-makers went to “extraordinary lengths” to prevent Haitians from coming to this country, as the Migration Policy Institute put it, including sending Coast Guard boats to sweep the high seas for desperate asylum seekers and force them back to Haiti. In 1993 the Supreme Court upheld this policy, and by 2004, the US had inked an agreement with the Bahamas to police Bahamian waters and turn back unwanted migrants, many of them from Haiti. The US regularly pumped the Bahamas with security aid and, at one point, sent paid informants to secretly investigate corruption in Bahamian immigration processes, which might allow Haitians to illicitly enter the country.
Still, Haitians kept arriving in the Bahamas, and by 2019, the Haitian community had grown to account for one-fifth of the population. They were routinely blamed for “every social and medical ill imaginable,” a study funded by the International Organization for Migration reported. On Abaco, communities refused to allow Haitians to settle in their neighborhoods, forcing Haitians to squat in shacks or on the edges of agricultural fields in ad hoc settlements that eventually developed into sprawling shantytowns like the Mudd. From there, residents went off each day to work at low-wage jobs tending gardens and cleaning Abaco’s lush resorts and private beachside mansions.
Bahamian politicians repeatedly threatened to raze these communities. Neighboring property owners positioned dumpsters full of burning garbage on the edge of the Mudd, filling its lanes with noxious fumes. But owners were stymied in realizing their goals by human rights activists who filed lawsuits against the government. Employers exerted political pressure to shield the shantytowns from destruction because they relied on Haitians’ cheap labor. It was common, said anthropologist Bertin Louis, for Bahamians to refer to the Haitian people who worked for them in terms reminiscent of earlier, more brutal eras, almost as if they were property. They would call a Haitian person they employed not by his or her name or profession but simply as “my Haitian.”
Then Dorian arrived.
At 10 AM on the day that Dorian struck the northern Bahamas, the sky looked like midnight, the rain tasted like saltwater, and the shantytowns bustled. By then, the islands’ wealthy residents had left. They’d hired local workers to prepare their mansions for the storm and taken off in their helicopters, private jets, or chartered boats. But the mostly Haitian workers who cleaned the resorts and tended their gardens stayed put, despite the government’s emergency evacuation order. Even those with relatively well-paid jobs didn’t have the funds for the costly flights or ferries required to get off the island, not even to the nearby capital, Nassau. Others preferred “to stare down a Category 5 hurricane,” noted human rights lawyer Fred Smith, rather than subject themselves to government-run hurricane shelters where they’d have to “entrust their safety to officials who have repeatedly targeted them illegally.”
As the storm approached, shantytown residents took shelter wherever they could—in community centers, in churches, under abandoned machinery. Most of the structures failed. Hurricane Dorian’s 185-mph winds tore children from their mothers’ arms, lifted roofs, catapulted vehicles, and scoured the forests of vegetation. Celia, 27, stayed at home with her mother and infant cousin to cook some food to take with them to a church where they planned to ride out the storm. But before they could get there, a piece of flying debris killed her mother, and the church collapsed, killing almost everyone inside, including Celia’s brother. Claudia Brave, an effervescent 18-year-old who had been squatting on agricultural land, huddled in an abandoned school bus; her neighbors hid under an old tractor.
Behind the wind came a storm surge over 20 feet high, inundating Abaco. Even a minor surge would have flooded the shantytowns, which were just a few feet above sea level. The waters surrounding the island have been steadily rising for years, thanks in part to the carbon unleashed by the motorboat-riding tourists from the United States and Europe who fueled the Bahamian economy. In a small church painted pink, water rose so high that those who took refuge there had to climb up to the rafters, where they balanced precariously on narrow wooden beams above the swirling water. Outside, the deluge pushed a rusty vessel, notorious for smuggling people from Haiti, into the center of town. The unlucky were lifted up and washed away. Those who grabbed passing debris to use as life rafts—as did one man, who described floating with his small children atop a mattress—watched their neighbors’ bodies drift by in the currents, 40 to 50 at a time.
It felt to the locals, many of whom survived more than one hurricane before, like something altogether new. Dorian had been fueled by seas a full degree Celsius warmer than in the past, and thanks to the collapse of atmospheric winds in the subtropics, it stalled over the Bahamas for some 40 hours. “That was no hurricane!” said Celia. “That was the name that they gave it…to fool us humans. But that wasn’t no hurricane.”
It’s impossible to know how many people might have reached safer ground before Dorian’s arrival—or in other parts of the Bahamas, in the United States, or elsewhere in the Caribbean—had they not been constrained by a legal infrastructure that trapped them in place. Other countries in the region used strict immigration policies to target Haitians as unwanted. The United States prevented them from seeking asylum. And no country in the world recognized the rights of people like them, exposed to climate displacement, to cross international borders. For many, moving to safety would have required a perilous illicit journey and accepting a life in the shadows to follow.
Scientists and policy-makers have long known that legal pathways to migration could allow people to leave areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change before disaster strikes. While the average hurricane increases migration flows by 6 percent, more damaging storms, of the kind that are expected to hit the Atlantic as climate change progresses, lead to spikes of more than 30 percent. Island nations, where short-term moves to safe ground are not feasible, are especially vulnerable—and the marginalized populations on those islands even more so.
The conventional objection to paving legal pathways for migrants casts their arrival as intrinsically disruptive. Just the opposite is true, however: If allowed to move, migrants can save their lives and improve the resilience of the societies they join as well as those they leave behind. Despite the best efforts of US policy-makers to keep Haitian migrants from US shores, those who have made it to the country have prospered, raising children who acquire advanced degrees at a rate higher than locals do. The immigrants share their hard-won economic prosperity with their relatives in Haiti, sending back over $3 billion a year.
In recognition of these realities, a variety of efforts to build the necessary legal infrastructure have been launched in recent years. In 2015, an ad hoc group of UN negotiators and international nongovernmental organizations proposed that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change be amended to include a “climate change displacement coordination facility” that would foster regional and bilateral treaties to manage climate-driven migration. The facility would have been part of a larger legal framework called the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, under which poorer countries that bear the brunt of the climate crisis would have received technical and financial support.
Also in 2015, officials from Switzerland and Norway proposed that UN treaties on migration and refugees incorporate the Nansen Agenda for Protection, which outlines new safeguards for climate-displaced people. And in 2019 in the United States, legislation calling for the creation of a federal program to accept tens of thousands of climate migrants every year was introduced in Congress by Representative Nydia Velázquez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
But these efforts quickly fell apart amid the global rise of anti-migrant political movements. Beginning around 2015, a raft of right-wing populist leaders clambered to power in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, proclaiming that they would drive back a coming tsunami of unwanted outsiders. If they didn’t, a writer for a white nationalist US website said, “migration triggered by climate change would overwhelm us.” In their rhetoric, climate-driven migration was framed as a kind of “degradation narrative,” as the writer Betsy Hartmann put it, recalling old colonial tropes about downtrodden and destructive dark-skinned people overwhelming fairer, more prosperous ones.
As anti-migrant populism resurged across the West, wealthy countries resisted taking on any liability through the Warsaw Mechanism, under which they would have to compensate poorer, more heavily affected ones. Richer nations also pushed back against the proposal for a climate change displacement coordination facility, forcing policy-makers to strip it from the 2016 Paris Agreement—a “deplorable outcome for those affected by climate displacement,” one observer wrote.
Meanwhile, the Nansen Agenda became a key sticking point during negotiations over UN agreements on refugees and migration that began in 2016, humanitarian activist Arjun Claire and forced-displacement expert Jérôme Élie said. “Several States,” they wrote, “cautioned against what they perceived as a potential broadening of the refugee definition.” In the end, the Nansen Agenda was stripped from the 2018 UN agreement known as the Global Compact on Refugees and replaced with a “symbolic recognition” of the needs of climate-displaced people, said international human rights lawyer Walter Kälin. Even so, anti-migrant protests ensued in countries whose leaders had agreed to the compact. In Belgium, police used water cannons to disperse thousands of protesters who gathered to berate the Belgian prime minister for signing on, spurring his resignation.
In the period that followed, political leaders exploited the vacuum in legal protections, neglecting exposed populations and using their displacement to jump-start redevelopment plans. Whole populations of some islands in Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas were displaced by hurricanes. In Barbuda, people who lost their homes to Hurricane Irma in 2017 were stripped of their land rights while still shell-shocked and living in shelters. Government officials decreed that their land, which had traditionally been communally held, would be sold to celebrity investors to build luxury resorts. In Kiribati, a new president announced plans to build lavish resorts on his sinking islands, denying that human activity had anything to do with climate change and arresting commentators who dared say otherwise.
In the post-Dorian Bahamas, what human rights activists called a campaign of de facto ethnic cleansing unfolded.
After Dorian receded, traumatized survivors fled the devastated islands. Some made their way to Florida aboard cruise ships and found temporary refuge among friends and family. But President Trump claimed, without evidence, that there were “very bad people” among the survivors, and safe passage to the United States was quickly rescinded. The US refused to offer them even temporary legal status. Dozens of hurricane survivors who attempted to board a boat bound for Fort Lauderdale were prevented from leaving, with US officials claiming, unexpectedly, that those with Bahamian passports required visas.
Many Haitian hurricane survivors ended up in shelters in Nassau. Within weeks, videos calling for them to be shot on sight or starved in the shelters made the rounds on social media. Anti-Haitian demonstrators gathered outside the shelters, holding Bahamian flags and jeering at evacuees as they entered. “We want you out of our country!” they yelled. “Repatriation!”
In early October, as Abaco lay in shambles, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis delivered an address to the House Assembly about the island. “We will eradicate shantytowns and return law to our country,” he proclaimed. Government officials issued a ban on rebuilding in the shantytowns. They declared work permits invalid if survivors had lost their jobs because of the storm, as many did. They threatened those who ventured out of the shelters with deportation if their papers were not in order. They stepped up their nighttime raids of Nassau’s shantytowns, apprehending traumatized hurricane survivors who sought refuge there. Hundreds were thrown into detention centers, where they stayed for weeks and were then packed onto chartered flights to Haiti.
On Abaco, government-hired contractors bulldozed the ruins of the shantytowns and enclosed the flattened sites in fencing. Untold numbers of human remains vanished with the debris. None of the contractors attempted to extract remains for identification and burial. “They are just bulldozing these communities and forcibly dispossessing people,” some of whom “are looking for the bodies of their kids,” said Bahamian human rights activist Paco Nunez.
UN observers, NGOs, and diplomats objected to the government’s anti-Haitian campaign, to little effect. A leader of an NGO that facilitated a visit by UN human rights observers to Abaco in October and December said she was warned by local officials to focus on Bahamian and not Haitian hurricane survivors. She said that in one instance, local officials physically blocked NGOs from providing aid to Haitian survivors on the island. “The minute we say anything” about their rights and needs, said another, “the government will kick us out.”
When I visited, the Haitian hurricane survivors who remained on Abaco lived amid the rubble as fugitives, subsisting on illicit handouts from charity groups. They slept in broken-down cars and donated tents pitched in the shadow of churches from which the pastors had fled. They told me of nighttime raids by immigration officials and of being chased, beaten, and extorted for the few valuables they had left. One man was beaten so badly, I was informed, that he had to be hospitalized and later died.
Meanwhile, non-Haitian Abaco residents said they were glad to see their Haitian neighbors gone. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” one businessman told me. The Haitians were mostly criminals, said another, a pastor with a pendant reading “100% Bahamian” on a gold chain around his neck. Rumors swirled that some of the land they’d lived on might be turned into a shopping mall or developed for tourism. Developers have already started sniffing around.
In March, Covid-19 arrived in the Bahamas. Within days of the first reported case, a partial nationwide shutdown and curfew went into effect. On Abaco, residents and aid workers said, Bahamian soldiers surrounded the tents in which Haitian hurricane survivors had been living and told them to leave, rounding up some of them for deportation and justifying their actions as a public health effort. Just where they ended up remains obscure. Those who were able to escape were driven even deeper into the shadows just beyond Abaco’s beaches. There, in makeshift shelters on abandoned agricultural lands, they face this year’s hurricane season even more exposed than they were before.
It may seem that the predicament facing the Haitian community in the Bahamas is that of a tiny population inhabiting a small and distant island. But our collective failure to protect marginalized peoples living in the corners of the planet will soon have much larger ramifications for all of us. By choking off pathways for people to move, we’ve left more of us vulnerable to climate shocks and the whims of local power structures while increasing the probability of disruptive, crisis-driven mass movements.
In 2019 the number of people uprooted by natural disasters exceeded the number of those displaced by conflict and violence by a factor of three, with tropical storms, monsoon floods, and other climate calamities propelling more than 24 million people around the world out of their homes. That number will continue to increase in the coming years. Their movements do not have to proceed as a sequence of calamities. Given our understanding of how climate shocks influence migration, we can predict needs and manage migration in ways that make it safe, orderly, and humane. Legal pathways to migrate could allow people to leave vulnerable areas slowly, before disasters strike. Resources to increase resilience could reduce some people’s vulnerability and risk of displacement, moderating the pace of migration.
“It might be too late to avert a climate crisis,” said climate migration expert Jane McAdam, who directs the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales. “But we can avert a displacement crisis if we start to act now.”
In our time of multiplying crises, the political will to do so may seem distant. But that may change as climate chaos bears down and many more of us find ourselves exposed and yet trapped, like those of the shantytowns of Abaco, in the dark of a coming storm.