August 3rd is Emancipation Day in The Bahamas, a national holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves and the freedom and equality of all people in the archipelago nation. But for the people at risk of statelessness in The Bahamas, this holiday will be spent like every day – in fear of arbitrary arrest and deportation to a country they have never set foot in.
A “stateless person” is someone who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law, whereas individuals at “risk of statelessness” lack evidence of their nationality, or the support of nationality registration and documentation services. While statelessness can have many causes, in The Bahamas, current citizenship policies place two groups at risk of statelessness: the children of migrants born in The Bahamas, and children born in The Bahamas to an unwed Bahamian father and a migrant mother. These migrants are often Haitian nationals, the largest migrant population in the country.
As the Bahamian Constitution does not provide automatic nationality to everyone born in the country, children born in the Bahamas to Haitian nationals, and other non-Bahamian nationals, only have immediate access to their parents’ nationality, if they are entitled to any nationality at all. Under Haitian law, children born to Haitian parents outside of Haiti are not automatically guaranteed Haitian citizenship, which means children born in The Bahamas to Haitian parents are at risk of statelessness unless they can apply for and receive Haitian citizenship. Although there is an existing constitutional pathway for the children of migrants born in The Bahamas to apply for Bahamian citizenship at age 18, the onerous process is often riddled with delays and migrants may face anti-Haitian sentiment from authorities, leaving many individuals still at risk of statelessness while they secure Bahamian citizenship.
Further complicating the issue, children born in The Bahamas to one Haitian parent and one Bahamian parent may still be at risk of statelessness depending on the gender of the Bahamian parent. In short, The Bahamas and Barbados are the only two countries in the Western hemisphere that distinguish the conferral of citizenship to children based on gender. The Bahamian Constitution does not permit an unmarried Bahamian man to confer his citizenship to his Bahamian-born child; however, an unmarried Bahamian woman will give birth to a child entitled to Bahamian nationality, regardless of the father’s citizenship. This creates a risk of statelessness based upon the gender, marital status, and the nationality of a child’s parents. Again, this situation disparately impacts the children of the large Haitian-Bahamian community who may not automatically acquire either Bahamian or Haitian citizenship at birth.
In May 2020, the Bahamian Supreme Court reinterpreted this constitutional provision, ruling that children born in The Bahamas to an unmarried Bahamian man and a foreign woman should be Bahamian citizens at birth. The decision would help prevent the risk of statelessness by ensuring that all children born in The Bahamas to at least one Bahamian parent is a Bahamian citizen at birth, regardless of their parent’s gender or marital status.
While the Supreme Court decision is a step in the right direction, the Bahamian government has announced they will appeal the ruling. Should the Court’s decision be overturned, unwed Bahamian men will likely continue to adopt their own biological children as the only means to confer their nationality to their children born to non-Bahamian mothers.
Without access to identity documents, individuals at risk of statelessness in The Bahamas could be denied access to school, medical attention, and formal employment, among other potential facets of life. These individuals can also be the target of arbitrary arrest and expulsion from The Bahamas. The current citizenship conferral laws appear at odds with established international law standards regarding the right to nationality, so barring concrete legislative change by The Bahamian government, Emancipation Day will ring hollow for people born in The Bahamas at risk of statelessness.