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HAITI-DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Neighbours, But Not Friends

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

SANTO DOMINGO, Jun 20 2007 (IPS) - On a recent trip from Pedernales, the most southern province on the border with Haiti, Dominican officials boarded the bus 12 separate times.

Anti-Haitian protestors burn tires in Los Llanos, Dominican Republic. Credit: Uncommon Productions

Anti-Haitian protestors burn tires in Los Llanos, Dominican Republic. Credit: Uncommon Productions

Two women on the bus, traveling with children and their Dominican identity cards, were subject to repeated intensive scrutiny. One, accused of having a false cedula, engaged in a bantering but friendly interchange with the border guard.

The heightened security follows reports that Haitians were entering the Dominican Republic by paying off border guards, and an outcry among many Dominicans who fear that their nation will be overrun with Haitian immigrants escaping poverty and environmental degradation.

In response, the Dominican Republic government has increased the guards’ salaries and launched a new military frontier force which recently held exercises geared to restraining a massive influx of Haitian refugees.

Plainclothes government officials now stop the buses inbound from the Haitian border.

The majority of the passengers on the journey from Pedernales presented Haitian passports, which had cost them 75 dollars, about 15 percent of the average national income, and single and multiple entry visas which cost between 33 and 150 dollars.

Riders on the bus confirmed that until a few months ago, it was possible to enter the country by simply paying off the driver, who would negotiate passage with the border guards.

“We could come with nothing, no papers, only money,” said one of the women. “Now we must have papers.”

The Haitian men said that they were coming to work, that there were no jobs in Haiti. But none of their visas gave them the legal right to work.

A new law, which would formalise the status of temporary workers, was passed in 2004 but needs a presidential protocol to be implemented. The Dominican Republic is heavily dependent on Haitian workers, who perform an estimated 60 percent of the agricultural labour and much of the construction work. Few of the newer Haitian workers come to look for work in the sugar cane fields, preferring to live in the cities or look for other agricultural work.

The Dominican Republic has been accused of “modern-day slavery” in two films about the living conditions among sugar cane cutters, now showing in France and the United States. There have also been negative reports by Amnesty International and an internal and international campaign on behalf of Dominican-Haitians without documentation.

One result has been an upsurge in nationalistic sentiment. Moderate voices have been overwhelmed as local newspapers publish letter after letter conveying the fears of many Dominicans that their nation, traditionally “white, Spanish, and Christian”, will be overtaken by Haitians, from whose rule they gained independence in 1844.

The accusations of abuses against Haitian migrants have been taken by many here as attacks on the entire nation. The sugar industry was privatised in 1999, but sugar and its by-product, rum, were for centuries the backbone of the Dominican economy. Leaders in the tourism industry, now the main economic engine, fear that calls for sanctions and boycotts against the nation will affect revenues.

Following the settlement of a 10-year-long case at the International Human Rights Court in Costa Rica, a non-binding judicial arm of the Organisation of American States, the Dominican Supreme Court reasserted its sovereignty by stating that it would not grant citizenship to the children of illegal workers, as the court had recommended, but would instead establish a “rose book” for the registration of the births of children of foreign nationals. Edwin Paraison, director of Foundation Zile and a former Haitian consul working for the rights of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, supports the “rose book”.

He believes that the sugar cane workers do indeed live in conditions of modern slavery, but speaking of the “rose book”, Paraison says: “It is a first step. At least all children will have a record of birth and we can work from there, to get them official documents, either from Haiti or here.”

“There are as many as 600,000 Haitians living in this country, but only 5-6,000 of them have proper legal status,” he emphasised.

All the others are living in conditions of insecurity, subject to deportation at any moment. However, massive deportations of Haitians have slowed down, with only 5,000 registered in the first five months of this year as opposed to an estimated 20,000 last year.

Paraison also urges implementation of the new migration law. “Bosses call the police to have Haitian workers deported so they don’t have to pay them,” he added.

This abuse was confirmed by Luis Manuel Ramirez, representative of the International Organisation for Migration, based in Geneva.

“Employers often call the police to have Haitian workers deported to avoid paying them, this is true,” he told IPS.

Working with the Dominican government from the local office in Santo Domingo to ensure that deportations are done in a humane manner, and that deportees can collect their pay and notify their families, Ramirez says: “Things are a bit better over the last two years. They are transported in buses, not open trucks. They are fed while they are in custody. Fewer children are being taken.”

While the IOM takes no position on citizenship, deeming that a Dominican domestic matter, Ramirez believes that “conditions will improve once the new law is implemented.”

Contrary to the impression that all Haitians live under appalling conditions in the Dominican Republic, evidence suggests that the majority of them live as well as their poor Dominican neighbours.

A nationwide survey (Encuesta sobre Inmigrantes Haitianos en Republica Dominicana, 2004 by FLACSO, Facultad Latinoamericana de Cience Sociales) of a representative 40,000 households found that over 70 percent of the Haitians lived with electric lights, beds with mattresses, toilets and city supplied water.

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