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DR’s humanitarian disaster

Sunday, July 5, 2015
Douglas Mendes

The children of Haitian migrants born in the Dominican Republic are once again in danger of being banished from the country in which they have spent all their lives. It is hard to think that a humanitarian disaster of such proportions could be unfolding on our doorstep in this day and age. As if the descendants of the Haitian people have not endured enough.

For the greater part of the 20th century, Dominicans have taken full advantage of the desperation of their poverty-stricken Haitian neighbours. It is cheap Haitian labour which has fuelled the success of their sugar plantations and more recently, the construction industry. It is cheap Haitian labour which performs the menial tasks many Dominicans consider beneath their own dignity. It is a failing of the human character that we are so often contemptuous of the powerless. And where the powerful are of a different ethnic makeup, it is but a short step to that contempt finding expression in racist denigration. Such has been the experience of Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic.

The recent threat of expulsion is but the latest in a long history of abuse. In 1937, under the Trujillo regime, thousands of Haitians found outside the sugar plantations were rounded up and executed in a campaign known as the “parsley” massacre, so called because black labourers suspected of being Haitian were identified by their inability to pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, with a roll of the “r.” Trujillo made no secret of his antipathy towards Haitians who he considered to be inferior, characterising them as lazy and untrustworthy. A succession of presidents propagated such racist stereotypes. Despite a return to democracy, racist anti-Haitian sentiments still persist in Dominican society today.

Towards the end of the century, attacks on Haitians migrants, though less deadly, have taken the form of mass deportations, a policy which can only be described as schizophrenic given the agreements entered into from time to time with the Haitian Government to provide migrant labour to satisfy the needs of the sugar industry. Typically, “Haitian-looking” people are snatched by security forces and herded off to the border. They are given little time to contact family members or provide any documentation they might have attesting to their right of residence. The opportunities for bribery are rife.

The Dominican Constitution provides that anyone born in the Dominican Republic is a Dominican citizen, except if born to diplomats or to people “in transit.” Several court decisions had defined “in transit” as being in the republic for ten days. Because of the enduring need for cheap labour, Haitian migrants have ended up living in their neighbour's territory for many years. Their children were accordingly entitled to Dominican citizenship. It is estimated that there are some 250,000 such offspring of Haitian migrants who have never set foot in the land of their parents' birth. Some of them managed to obtain birth certificates attesting to their birthright. But the antipathy towards Haitians is such that various obstacles were put in their way by petty bureaucrats steeped in the practice of racism.

In 1999, the Dominican Republic acceded to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights whose decisions are binding in international law. In a landmark case in 2005, the mass deportation of Haitians was condemned as violating various human rights provisions. This was the backdrop to the passage of an amendment to the Constitution in 2010 providing that birth in Dominican territory was not sufficient to bestow citizenship unless one of the child’s parents was already a Dominican citizen. That by itself was not offensive. A number of countries have similar stipulations. The source of the current debacle, however, is the November 2013 decision of the Dominican Constitutional Court declaring the amendment to have retroactive effect, thereby nullifying citizenship which had been acquired under the unamended law. In one fell swoop, a quarter of a million descendants of Haitian migrants were rendered stateless and vulnerable to state abuse.

The international condemnation which ensued was deafening. To its credit, the Dominican government attempted to provide some relief by undertaking to regularise the offspring of Haitian migrants born in the Dominican Republic who could produce a Dominican birth certificate. Those who could not were to be registered as “foreigners.” The deadline given for registration expired in the middle of June 2015. 

Both the judgment of the constitutional court and the Government's response were condemned by the Inter-American Court as violating the right to equality. Children of Haitian migrants who were denied automatic citizenship even though born in the republic were being discriminated against on the basis of an impermissible factor, namely their parent’s illegal status. It was an assault on the dignity of someone who had lived all her life in one place to be labelled a foreigner. As historical fate would have it, just a month or so later, the constitutional court ruled that the Dominican Republic’s accession to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court was in violation of the Constitution, with the result that the Inter-American Court's rulings could be ignored. Thus cast adrift from international judicial sanction, the deportation of sons and daughters of Dominican soil has begun once again. 

It is not enough for the Dominican authorities to plead that sufficient opportunity has been given to Haitian offspring to regularise their status. In such a poisoned atmosphere, many Dominicans of Haitian descent may have been too afraid and distrustful to come forward. In any event, it is inexplicable that the Dominican Government would continue to sanction a policy which converts thousands of people who were once constitutionally entitled to citizenship into foreigners in the country of their birth. 

It is right that the Dominican Republic should be denied Caricom membership. We should have no tolerance for any policy so obviously tainted with racist overtones.


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