PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, June 17, 2015 (AMG) — The threat has been looming for over a year, and it now appears that, starting today, the Dominican Republic will go through with its plan to deport not only Haitian immigrants, but also Dominicans of Haitian descent, many of whom have never been to Haiti and speak no language but Spanish.
Although relations between the two countries have been fraught since 1822— when Haiti invaded what is now the Dominican Republic in an attempt to unify the island and free the slaves on the Spanish side — the relationship has recently been especially tense. For example, this February, a Haitian shoeshiner was lynched in a park in Santiago, prompting protests in Haiti which culminated in demonstrators storming the Dominican consulate in Port-au-Prince, burning the Dominican flag and raising the Haitian flag in its place.
A controversial decision
Yet, the defining issue that has overshadowed all others in the two countries’ relations for the last two years has been the threat of mass deportation. In September of 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Court retroactively stripped citizenship from anyone born to non-Dominican parents after 1929. The sweeping breadth of the decision could effect as many as 300,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, many of whom do not hold Haitian citizenship and would thus be rendered stateless. The Court’s ruling set June 17, 2015 as the deadline for Dominicans born to foreign parents to self-report as ‘foreigners’ and essentially re-apply for their citizenship through the National Plan for Regularisation of Foreigners (known in Spanish as PNRE) or else face deportation.
The Dominican Republic’s threat to de-nationalise and deport as many as several hundred thousand people has attracted widespread criticism and condemnation from international human rights groups, CARICOM, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the US State Department and others.
But in Haiti, the official government response has been, at best, denial, and at worst, complicity. Following summit after summit with their Dominican counterparts, Haitian officials have affirmed that the Dominican government has the right to regulate immigration within its own territory. Two days before the deportations were scheduled to begin, Haitian President Michel Martelly insisted that relations between the two countries were still good.
Is Haiti prepared?
Yesterday, with the deadline less than 24 hours away, Haitian government ministers met and announced that they had a ‘contingency plan’ for repatriating deportees. Prime Minister Évans Paul stressed that the responsibility for receiving deportees couldn’t fall on the government alone: “This is a national responsibility, and that’s why we beg for solidarity.”
The hurried, last-minute press conference, following months of blithe reassurances and inaction, left many unconvinced.
Geralda Sainville, Director of Advocacy for the Support Group for Refugees and Repatriates (known in French as GARR) told AMG that the Haitian government has not adequately planned for the possible arrival of thousands of deportees:
“GARR is a bit perplexed regarding the response plan of the Haitian government – if there really is plan. Thus far there has been no official document published.”
Sainville noted that the government has in fact set up two welcome centers along the border to welcome new arrivals, but that there are four official border crossings, and dozens more unofficial crossings, all of which the Dominican authorities have used in the past when deporting Haitian-Dominicans. “On what basis did the Haitian government choose only two crossing points and leave all the others?” asks Sainville.
Last July, the government instituted the Identification Programme for Haitian Expatriates (known in French as PIDIH) to provide documentation to Haitian-Dominicans seeking to regularise their status in the DR. This program was widely viewed as a tacit legitimisation of the Dominican policy, and to make matters worse, it only provided official documents to a few thousand out of the hundreds of thousands of Haitian-Dominicans facing deportation. Even Daniel Supplice, the Haitian ambassador to Santo Domingo described the PIDIH as “a failure.”
The Haitian government’s inability to provide documents to Haitian-Dominicans likely presages a lack of capacity to manage the arrival of waves of deportees. Sainville estimates that the National Office of Migration, the state office in charge of such issues, doesn’t even have the capacity to receive a few hundred people, much less thousands.
Mixed messages from Santo Domingo
Andres Navarro Garcia, the Dominican Foreign Affairs Minister, promised at a summit with his Haitian counterpart two weeks ago that deportations would take place gradually and offered a 45-day extension for Haitian-Dominicans to ‘regularise’ their status. But the Dominican Immigration Director, Ruben Dario Paulino Sem, later clarified that the extension only applies to those who have already registered in the PNRE, thus disqualifying all the applicants who did not receive the proper documentation from Haitian authorities or who were otherwise barred from registering for the PRNE.
This follows a familiar pattern from Dominican authorities: A soft tone and reassurances in bilateral and international meetings, but anti-immigrant rhetoric for domestic audiences and a more heavy-handed ‘on the ground’ implementation of policy.
“A civil massacre”
The sheer scale of the deportations as well as the inability of the Haitian government and Haitian society more broadly to handle an influx of stateless deportees has created a sense of crisis in some quarters. The word ‘catastrophe’ is regularly thrown around when discussing the issue on Haitian radio. Theus Beguens, a member of the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House of Parliament), and executive director of Research and Action for Migrants (RAMI) called the impending deportation a “civil massacre, ” comparing it to the physical massacre of Haitians living in the borderlands in 1937, ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
With an official unemployment rate of 27% — almost certainly an underestimation—and tens of thousands of Haitians still living in tent cities as the rebuilding from the 2010 earthquake drags on, Haiti can scarce absorb several hundred thousand stateless, jobless and homeless new arrivals. Regardless of whether the Dominican Republic sends waves of deportees across the border — as the recently announced purchase of a fleet of buses might suggest — or a more gradual trickle, tensions between the two already uneasy neighbours seem likely to grow.
Moreover, as Ms. Sainville argues, unilateral actions like this one by the Dominican government not only won’t help relations; they won’t even achieve their desired effect: “The strategy of repatriation is not a sustainable solution for the problem of migration flows. There must be public policies which can actually address the ‘push’ factors in Haiti, which are the principal causes of migration.”
Image Credit: reconoci.do