Some Jamaicans call it “badmind”, others say it is flat-out discrimination and profiling: the reasons given to explain the harrowing treatment of many Jamaicans when they visit other countries.
While the island is admired for its beauty, food and culture, the Jamaican people have long had a reputation as being “dangerous”, which has led to the stigmatization of nationals across the Caribbean region.
Just this week, a Jamaican national, Matthew Sewell, who spent more than nine years in a Bahamian prison, despite never being convicted of a crime, is seeking US$27 million in damages from the state.
In 2006, Matthew Sewell went on vacation in The Bahamas at age 18. Within 10 days of his arrival, he was accused of raping a six-year-old girl and was detained at the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services for two years before he was granted bail in 2008. In 2009, he was once again charged with rape and remained in custody for over four years without trial.
In August 2013, Sewell was granted bail and the rape charges from 2006 and 2009 were dismissed. However, two months later, he was arrested again in connection with a housebreaking incident. While on bail for that charge, Sewell was informed that he was wanted for murder and taken back into custody, although he was never formally charged with that offence.
In 2014, a magistrate dismissed the charges related to the housebreaking, but Sewell was later detained. Between January 2016 and July 2017, he was also arrested and charged with two counts of unlawful sexual intercourse. A nolle prosequi had triggered his subsequent release.
Earlier this week, Justice Ruth Bowe-Darville in The Bahamas struck out the government’s defence and scheduled a hearing on October 28 for the assessment of damages after Sewell instituted legal proceedings against the state for damages related to arbitrary and unlawful detention, battery, assault, malicious prosecution and breaches of his fundamental rights under the Constitution.
In a 2015 interview with the Jamaica Gleaner, Sewell stated that he was beaten and stabbed several times, and had to fight to stay alive. He said while fighting to not be sexually assaulted, he was placed in solitary confinement for six months, where he never saw sunlight for the period and his cell was taken over by rats.
Sewell’s lawyer, Queen Counsel, Fred Smith, reportedly indicated that over the nine years and nine months in and out of jail, courts, and the detention centre, Sewell has had his eye nearly gouged out with a pen, his nose broken, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the conditions in which he was held.
Smith also said his client’s case is just the “tip of the iceberg” as it relates to human rights abuses in The Bahamas.
In recent years, the country has become known for its profiling, harassment and discrimination of Haitians that live and work on the islands. Just last year, following the devastating Hurricane Dorian, Haitians in the Bahamas reported that they were facing discrimination by their Bahamanian neighbors and that government officials that has made it harder to access emergency aid, shelter and health care and to find jobs to get back on their feet after the storm.
This treatment is also the reality of Jamaicans living in other countries across the region.
It is no secret that in the Eastern Caribbean, Jamaicans face mass discrimination and profiling, and are often thought of as criminals. In the past, planeloads of Jamaicans have been denied entry, detained and shipped back to Jamaica by immigration officials at Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport, even though they can travel freely to other CARICOM countries.
And who can forget the infamous case of Shanique Myrie, a Jamaican woman who had travelled to Barbados and was detained and subjected to a dehumanising invasion of her vaginal cavity by a Barbadian Immigration officer in 2011? Myrie had then been deported to Jamaica the following day, despite not being found in possession of any contraband.
Unfortunately, this kind of treatment of Jamaicans throughout the region is also experienced in the United States, where Jamaicans often migrate to experience a better quality of life. Like Mexicans and other immigrant nationals, it is customary for Jamaicans to be automatically seen as “illegal” in the United States, even if they are American citizens.
However, while the reputation does a disservice to upstanding Jamaicans in the diaspora, it isn’t completely baseless. The tradition of illegal migration coupled with the influx of criminal activity caused by Jamaicans in other countries has tainted “Brand Jamaica” from being not only unique culture and beauty, but to something that deserves caution.