“I left the Dominican Republic because people said they would kill all the Haitians,” said Mona Jermin in Haitian Kreyòl. “Now I have nothing.” Two weeks ago Jermin gave birth to a baby boy in a dusty tent at a camp for Haitians who have fled the Dominican Republic. She had no medical care, and she says her child lacks food, clothes, and still hasn’t seen a doctor.
Although the Dominican government did not begin mass deportations of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent following a June 17 immigration deadline, some 66,000 people have already fled the country. And while the threat of deportation may have played a part, it seems to be only part of the story. In more than two-dozen interviews in camps of Haitians who have fled the Dominican Republic in recent months, most people told stories of threats and intimidation from Dominican civilians. The threat of deportation remains very real for Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, but the threat of violence they face in the DR is in many cases just as serious.
The figure of 66,000 people having left the Dominican Republic comes from the Dominican government, which claims those who left did so “voluntarily” following the June deadline to apply for legal residency. The Dominican officials put into place its residency program after a 2013 ruling of the Dominican Supreme Court retroactively stripped away the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of people.
A handful of displaced people told stories of abuse from Dominican authorities and there have also been some reports of deportations continuing despite a yearlong Dominican moratorium on deportations that ended in mid-August. But most camp residents described face-to-face threats from Dominican civilians, Dominicans brandishing machetes and a culture of fear drummed up by Dominican media. Last week, a Haitian man was found stabbed to death in the Dominican town of Hatillo Palma after Dominican townspeople accused Haitians there of assaulting a Dominican woman.
There is a long history in the Dominican Republic of racism against Haitians, who generally have darker skin than Dominicans. Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic during part of the 19th century and, as Michele Wucker describes in her book, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians and the Struggle for Hispaniola, the Dominican liberation from Haiti plays an important role in the Dominican consciousness.
“Dominican townspeople told us they wanted what happened in 1937 to happen again to Haitians,” camp resident Amboise Henri, 47, said outside a shelter made of cardboard and branches that houses his wife and three children.
What happened in 1937 was a massacre of thousands of Haitians living along the border ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Dominican soldiers were ordered to use machetes and knives to carry out the massacre. Trujillo wanted it to appear that Dominican peasants perpetrated the killings to protect their land and livestock. This was not to appear to be the systematic massacre that it was.
As Wucker describes in her book, Trujillo's successor Joaquín Balaguer also downplayed the events and claimed they were the product of a popular uprising. “The events of 1937, which enemies of the Dominican government have tried to depict as a massacre of innocent Haitians, were instead the crystallization of the heart of our country,” Wucker quotes Balaguer as saying.
Ironically, the crystallized heart of some residents of the Dominican Republic appears to be a major reason tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent have fled the Dominican Republic while the Dominican government has mostly taken a back seat—at least for now.
Dominican government officials have maintained they won’t begin mass deportations anytime soon, but they are operating in an historical context in which mass deportations have been common and they have done little to abate fears of widespread round-ups. In a 13-month period spanning 2012 and 2013, the Dominican government deported 47,700 Haitians. The Dominican government also used its military for mass deportations in 2005 as well as several times in the 1990s.
Camp residents reported that the Catholic Church and other local charities have provided them with some provisions, but they lack food, medical supplies and adequate shelter.
“If it rains, we will have huge problems,” said Jorel Harice, a camp resident who fled his home in Agua Negra in the Dominican Republic after living there for 13 years.
All of the adults interviewed in camps were Haitian citizens. Some of the children were born in the Dominican Republic before that country took away birthright citizenship in 2004. None of these children had birth certificates, which are often difficult for people of Haitian descent to obtain.
A History of Neglect from the Haitian Government
Throughout the history of Hispaniola, the Haitian government has often neglected people caught between Haiti in the Dominican Republic. From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, Haitian dictators Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc literally sold Haitians to the Dominican government so that they could cut sugar cane.
Now, many camp residents blamed the Haitian government for not taking action to help them.
Jacques Demonsten, the owner of a plot of land that houses hundreds of displaced people, said he let people squat on his land as “a favor to the Haitian government.” But he says the Haitian government isn’t doing anything to help these people.
“Madame Martelly [the first lady of Haiti] came and took pictures, but the government has done nothing,” Domonsten said. He explained that he wants to resume irrigating the land where the displaced people have built structures and he is waiting for the Haitian government to decide how to help them. Haitian officials told Reuters they will try to relocate camp residents to nearby villages.
Haitian officials have also stated that they will not consider Dominicans of Haitian descent who were stripped of their Dominican citizenship by the 2013 ruling of the Dominican Supreme Court to be Haitian citizens. This could leave thousands of people in a stateless limbo.
Finally, Haitian nationals in the Dominican Republic have complained that it is difficult for them to obtain documents from the Haitian government that they need in order to enroll for legal status in the Dominican Republic.
The Situation Could Worsen
In the face of international pressure, Dominican officials stated last month that 289,000 undocumented people in their country who began the registration process can stay in the country for up to two years.
As the American Prospect reported, the United States has been muted in its critiques of the Dominican Republic due to trade interests and a successful Dominican lobbying effort. The U.S. State Department responded to the deportations with a statement supporting the right of the Dominican Republic to conduct deportations, but urging the Dominican Republic to avoid “mass deportations.”
Rights groups such as Amnesty International have been more outspoken in their criticism of Dominican treatment of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Last week 560 former Peace Corps volunteers who worked in the Dominican Republic called for the United States to discontinue military aid to the Dominican Republic because of that country’s mistreatment of Haitians and people of Haitian descent. According to their open letter, the U.S.-trained Dominican border security force has received $17 million in funding from the U.S. government since 2013.
The letter warned “widespread and severe” human rights abuses will take place if the Dominican Republic moves ahead with enforcing its 2013 Supreme Court ruling. If the Dominican Republic goes ahead with these policies, it could deport the hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent whose citizenship was stripped away by the 2013 court ruling and subsequently were unable to register for legal status.
Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic would then live under the threat not only of abuse, but of the Dominican government, including its U.S.-backed border patrol and military.