Migrations have shaped the demography, the economy, and the governance of St. Martin. Beginning in 1848 with the abolition of slavery in the French side, and into the 1970s the people of St. Martin migrated across the Caribbean, often temporarily for seasonal labor contracts. In 1863 slavery was abolished on the Dutch side, sparking more Caribbean migrations. Many migrated to the United States to settle down permanently, largely beginning in the 1930s, as in the case of Staten Island, NY and New London, CT.
Since the 1970s the construction and exploitation of the tourism infrastructure that launched the economic development of the island has relied on a labor force who came from the poorest Caribbean islands such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. From 1970-1990 the population increased by a factor of five and went from 14,000 in the 1970s to more than 80,000 at the end of the 1990s.These laborers were employed in construction and in the very lowest positions in the service industry and they lived in substandard, dangerous conditions.
In 1999, the year of the last census of the entire population of Saint Martin, French of metropolitan origin or from Guadeloupe, a French overseas department, constituted just over 65 percent of the total population, with those said to be originally from Saint Martin prior to European colonization estimated at 15 percent of the total population. The proportion of foreign born people was about 32 percent of the population, with a majority from the Caribbean, in particular from Haiti, Dominica and the Dominican Republic. The population of foreign-born inhabitants on Saint Martin decreased by 38 percent over the 1990s.Whereas it represented 53 percent of the population in 1990, it was no more than 32 percent in 1999. The reduction in the number of foreigners on Saint Martin is directly related to a policy of deportations implemented by the French government. From 1992 to 1997, this policy led to the deportation of 3,275 foreigners; this was the highest number of deportations in regards to the total population of any French overseas territory.
In 2001 the demographic composition of Sint Maarten was appreciably different from that of Saint Martin. The Dutch population originally from the Netherlands, the Federation of the Netherlands Antilles, or born on Sint Maarten was 50.6 percent. It was thus smaller than the French population of Saint Martin, though Sint Marteeners are more numerous than Saint Martinois, accounting for 30.5 percent of the population. The foreign-born population on Sint Maarten is more significant, constituting nearly 50 percent of its population. More than 30 percent of the total population is of Caribbean origin.
St. Martin is an exception in regards to the administration of its borders. First of all, the French government had no means of monitoring foreigners entering the island, regardless of whether they were visitors or residents. A large majority of people coming to the island come via Princess Juliana Airport or the harbor at Philipsburg, both on the Dutch side, where the air and border police (Police de l’air et des frontières, PAF) has started recently to operate only for flights coming from Haiti. Besides, there is no border checkpoint that stands as a physical reminder of the border and shows the links of the two sides or regulates the flow of people and goods between the two parts of the island. Travelers and residents move from the Dutch to the French side without being asked to show identification, in accordance with the Treaty of Concordia, which, in 1648, ratified the joint use of the island by France and the Netherlands and set the conditions for the circulation of people and goods. Only a monument erected in 1948 to the glory of three centuries of peaceful coexistence stands as a physical reminder of the border. The borders of the French territory are thus defined by Dutch legislation and are monitored by Dutch police. In consequence deportations take the place of the nonexistent border inspections and therefore played the role of external borders. Deportations occur at a proportionally greater frequency in the overseas territories than on European French soil. The French laws regulating the conditions for the entry and stay of foreigners in France contain specific articles for these territories which facilitate monitoring and deportations.
Following Hurricane Luis both the Dutch and French states implemented policies to get rid of the undocumented foreigners who lived on the island. Shantytowns, “12 palaces of cardboard” as they were coined in article published in a Dutch newspaper, were erased; houses were burned down. Hurricane Luis was “an opportunity” as declared by the French Prefect for the French government and the municipality of Saint-Martin to raze Cité Popo, a shantytown in Marigot that was inhabited by approximately one thousand Haitian nationals who lived in 400 makeshift homes. A delegation of lawyers who visited the island in December 1995 concluded that the destruction of these homes was illegal. Several French tribunals recognized the responsibilities of the municipality and the French government, but appeals slowed down the procedures leading to compensation. These lawyers were members of several French and Caribbean associations for the protection of the rights of foreigners (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés, GISTI and the Association Solidarité Karayib, ASSOKA) or members of the unions of magistrates and lawyers of France (Syndicat de la magistrature, Syndicat des avocats de France).
In the aftermath of hurricane Luis, not only were shanty towns erased on both sides of the island but individual houses, where foreigners lived, were burned by the municipality of Saint-Martin on the French side of the island. Emmanuel Marcelin, a French citizen of Haitian origin, had his house burned down on October 9th, 1995. He filed a lawsuit with members of the delegation that came in December 1995 to inspect the devastation against the municipality and the French government. Only in 2017 did he receive his first monetary settlement of US $60,000.00.
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