Posted on October 4, 2011

Love Thy Neighbour? Not When it Comes to the Dominican Republic and Haiti

Prosperity Raymond, Telegraph (London), October 3, 2011

Since the earthquake, the world’s attention has been focused on rebuilding Haiti for those already living here. But there are thousands of Haitians living next door in the Dominican Republic whose circumstances have also taken a dramatic turn for the worse, but who are receiving far less attention.

For years, relations between the governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic have been strained. The uneven development between the two countries meant there was a steady stream of Haitian workers crossing the border in search of employment even before the earthquake.

While the Dominican Republic has relied on these migrant workers to provide cheap labour for their sugar cane harvests and also in the building trades, some politicians have tried to win political capital by demonising them.

This is nothing new, of course. Around the world, immigrants are routinely vilified by rightwing politicians and accused of stealing local jobs. But in the Dominican Republic, both the rhetoric and the actual discrimination against Haitian migrants are virulent–and getting worse.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the attitude radically changed and the Dominican Republic was among the first to offer aid, rushing in ambulances, medical personnel and emergency supplies. Badly injured Haitians were allowed to travel freely across the border for medical treatment.

Now, more than 18 months on, relations between the two countries have begun to cool again. Last month, Jose Ricardo Taveras, the new immigration director for the Dominican Republic, publicly complained about the influx of Haitian migrants since the quake. This spring, banners sprung up in Taveras’s hometown of Santiago calling on Haitians to go home.

It is not just rhetoric, either. Over the past seven years the Dominican government has rewritten its constitution and reinterpreted old laws, effectively eliminating birthright citizenship. Since 26 January 2010, citizens must prove that they have at least one parent of Dominican nationality to be recognised. In other words, if you are a person born to undocumented Haitian parents living in the Dominican Republic, you no longer have the right to Dominican citizenship even if you have lived there your whole life.

This bureaucratic catch-22 can have dire consequences. Take Miledis Juan, who shares a tiny two-room house with her husband and one-year-old son in Batay Esperanza, a shantytown just outside the capital, Santo Domingo.

She currently operates an embroidery machine in a dingy factory in the free trade zone. Although Juan recently went to college to become a teacher and improve her circumstances, the certificate she earned is now effectively worthless. She is unable to get a teaching job because she can’t obtain a fresh copy of her birth certificate. She has a national identification document and a birth certificate proving she was born in the Dominican Republic. But the government now says both are invalid because her parents were undocumented Haitians.

Juan also needs a fresh copy of her birth certificate to register the birth of her own son. Without his own birth certificate, he will not be allowed to access health services or attend school past the eighth grade.

Not only that, but the rules are being applied retroactively to people who, like Juan, have already been granted Dominican citizenship, which contravenes the American convention of human rights under the Organisation of American States, to which the Dominican Republic is a signatory.

The Dominican authorities argue that people falling foul of the new ruling should apply for Haitian citizenship, even though they may not speak Creole or ever have set foot in Haiti. In any case, Haitian rules require them to have lived in Haiti for at least five years. This means that thousands of Haitian people living in the Dominican Republic are now effectively stateless. The situation is unjust and impractical, not to mention illegal under the human rights act.