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The Dominican Republic’s Tortured Relationship With Its Haitian Minority
The Dominican government’s harassment and scapegoating of Haitian migrants and their descendants has gone on for decades. It’s time for it to stop.
Early one evening in March, Nilson, a 19-year-old in the Dominican Republic province of Bahoruco, drove with his friend Willy, 20, into the town of Tamayo to get gasoline for his father’s motorcycle. The young men were at the gas station when a group of men arrived in a truck, wearing civilian clothes. They were police officers. Without asking any questions, they grabbed Nilson and Willy, and tried to force them onto the truck.
Willy resisted, and one of the officers drew a gun, while another handcuffed him. Willy was pushed into the truck along with Nilson. The two men were driven for several hours from Bahoruco to the town of Jimaní, along the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti. As the truck drove past the community where the two young men live, they called out to friends, telling them they had been detained by immigration authorities.
Word reached Nilson’s father, Solomon, who grabbed Nilson’s and Willy’s nationality papers, and flagged a bus to Jimaní along with his wife, Rosa. Solomon and Rosa arrived at around 10:00 a.m. the following morning. Along with local immigrant rights advocates, they went to the military base where Nilson and Willy were being detained. Nilson and Willy were only released after officials saw Nilson’s identification card and Willy’s birth certificate.
Authorities gave Nilson and Willy no official explanation for why they were detained and almost deported. Presumably, it was because they “looked Haitian.” While both men are in fact of Haitian descent, they were born in the Dominican Republic and have Dominican citizenship.
Stories like this have become increasingly common. Since the beginning of the year, I have been in and out of my native Dominican Republic documenting the human rights abuses there against Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. When I interviewed Nilson in March outside his home, he was still wary of being detained by army and immigration authorities. While authorities had previously never entered Nilson’s community itself to detain people, they had become increasingly bold in recent weeks, preparing for this summer’s increase in expulsions and deportations.
This week, tensions came to a boil as the government threatened to end its yearlong moratorium on deportations, and begin removing hundreds of thousands of undocumented Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. On Thursday, government officials vowed only targeted deportations of undocumented migrants would take place. Yet such promises are not reassuring.
Despite the alleged moratorium, local groups have reported an alarming increase in deportations since the beginning of the year. Often, those removed have been Dominican citizens like Nilson and Willy — not undocumented migrants. Deportations protocols are practically nonexistent, and people are targeted on the basis of appearance, with little or no verification of their identity and nationality.
As the Dominican government seems determined to move forward with an even greater number of deportations this summer, the Dominican Republic’s friends in the region and international organizations need to remind the country’s leaders of their human rights obligations and insist that they comply with international standards.
Since the early 20th century, migrants from Haiti have come to the Dominican Republic for work. Haitians have been an important source of labor for the Dominican sugar industry, but even with the decline of sugar production in the 1980s, migrants continue to play a crucial role in the Dominican economy, notably in agriculture, construction, and tourism. They have become integrated into Dominican communities and started families in the country.
Still, Haitian migrants and their descendants have had a complex and often charged relationship with Dominicans. Even though people of Haitian descent are an important part of Dominican society, nationalists among the Dominican social and political elite have used Haitian migrants and their descendants as a political scapegoat, calling them “a social burden” on the government that puts a strain on public goods like education and health care. Encouraging fears of a Haitian influx has been a strategy for politicians to gain popular support and consolidate power.
In 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest court of appeals on constitutional matters, summarily removed citizenship of tens of thousands of Dominicans, based on a retroactive reinterpretation of the country’s nationality law. This decision violated international human rights law and made thousands of people vulnerable to expulsion. Those affected have been unable to perform basic civil functions such as register children at birth, enroll in school and university, participate in the formal economy, or travel in the country without risk of deportation.
Briefly, it seemed that this gross violation of human rights would be stopped. In 2014, President Danilo Medina’s administration, under pressure from local groups and the international community, helped negotiate and pass a law to restore the nationality of those affected. The law, passed by Congress in May 2014, suggested that the Dominican government was committed to upholding the country’s human rights obligations.
It didn’t. The law was fraught with design and implementation flaws that have thwarted the process of helping Dominicans of Haitian descent keep their citizenship. Local sources have told me that nationalist elements within the government pushed to make the bureaucratic process so difficult that it discourages people of Haitian descent from restoring their nationality. And it worked: Thousands of applicants are now trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare.
In addition, the government also introduced in 2014 a plan to help newly arrived migrants from Haiti obtain a legal status. Haitians have been coming to the Dominican Republic for work for over a century, many of them undocumented. Over the past year, the government offered these individuals an opportunity to “regularize” their status in the country, giving them something akin to temporary work visas. But that plan, too, was rife with design and implementation failures.
The Dominican government’s decision to adopt laws to help give legal status to migrants and to reverse the Tribunal’s draconian decision were important first steps in trying to solve the country’s ongoing human rights crisis — even if they were flawed. But much work remains to be done to make these processes work. It is unclear whether President Medina has the will to do so.
As the official moratorium comes to an end, deportations are set to increase once more. While the government has said only migrants who have not been given these temporary work visas will be affected, stories like those of Nilson and Willy, Dominican citizens who look Haitian, tell a different story.
Any lawful deportations carried out need to take place in a manner consistent with international legal standards. The government must individually verify the identity of all those detained and protect legal migrants from removal to Haiti.
Human rights groups are calling on Dominican authorities to halt the expulsions of de-nationalized Dominicans, like Willy and Nilson, to promptly restore their citizenship, and to respect their right to a nationality. The government needs to work with nongovernmental groups, the Haitian government, and international groups and partner governments to guarantee that people are not arbitrarily and permanently deprived of their Dominican nationality.
Photo credit: ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images