A humanitarian crisis erupted in the Dominican Republic (DR) last month, when the government rolled out laws designed to allow the expulsion of massive numbers of Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. On Monday the DR government reassured the world that although over 25,000 people have left the DR, they did so voluntarily, in “private and air-conditioned buses” provided by the DR government.
This story is designed to soothe the global outcry over the anti-Haitian law. It’s also a lie.
On June 25 near the border town of Belladère, I visited the crossing as part of a delegation of nine human rights lawyers and law students from the U.S., Haiti, Australia and Canada. The delegation was coordinated by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux. We aimed to gather a clearer picture of what was happening on the ground.
What we witnessed was a reality starkly at odds with claims made by the DR government.
Trouble for Dominicans of Haitian descent began last year, when DR courts retroactively reversed the rule that anyone born on DR soil is entitled to citizenship. Haitians living in the DR without legal status are now considered simply in transit, meaning that any children of their children born in the DR no longer have DR citizenship. Because the rule is retroactive to 1929, it can strip Dominican citizenship from multiple generations.
To soften this harsh rule amid a backlash, the DR soon adopted Law 169-14, allowing these Dominicans a legal pathway to retain their citizenship, as well as Decree 327-13, allowing Haitians in the DR with irregular status to be regularized. Although Decree 327-13 states that applicants may provide any of five alternative identification documents, including birth certificates, we heard that in practice DR officials were accepting only a passport — and no one we spoke to had access to one.
So under the duress of these new rules, people have begun to leave.
During our visit, over just a few hours, we witnessed about 400 people entering Haiti from the DR at the Belladère crossing. Some were in the back of a large steel cargo truck; others in hot, overcrowded school buses, their belongings tied to the roof. The Haitian authorities seemed not to count most passengers as they entered the country, and only a minority on each bus got off to show their documents to officials.
Most of the arrivals in Haiti may thus be undocumented, leaving us with underestimates of the true numbers who have already left the DR, with flowing across the border daily.
That possibility is even more likely, given the systematic efforts we observed by authorities on both sides of the border to emphasize that travel was voluntary and to downplay the number of people crossing.
For example, staff from Haiti’s National Office of Immigration initially told our delegation that these were simply the usual trips made by workers on the DR side, implying that they were part of routine seasonal migration patterns. But the passengers said they had been in the DR for years; one man I spoke with hadn’t left the country since 1978. Most of those we spoke with had spent two to eight years in the DR.
On the DR side of the border, we observed a cargo truck — previously used to transport plantains — pull up alongside one of the full school buses parked nearby. We learned that the bus driver refused to continue to Haiti and negotiated to have the cargo truck carry the passengers the rest of the way to Port-de-Paix, in the north of Haiti. The steel, open-air truck box was dirty, smaller than the school bus and not designed for carrying people, especially for hours in the hot sun. Passengers yelled at the driver, saying they were being treated like animals. A few women with babies on their laps were then allowed to sit in the front of the truck with the driver. All others, including several small children, had to stand or sit on their luggage in the back of the truck’s dusty steel box. Several individuals had to hang off the sides of the truck.
This ride, as it turns out, was not provided by the DR government. Nor was it free. Passengers told us they paid the equivalent of up to $60, a large sum for impoverished workers in the DR. To put it in perspective, the next day the Haitian government pledged relief funds to help those passing through the town of Belladère that work out to 110 Haitian gourdes, or $2.15 per person.
When we brought the miserable conditions to the attention of a DR border official who identified himself as “an expert in international human rights law,” he told us that this was beyond the scope of responsibility of his office because it was a Haitian problem.
Air-conditioned buses, then, seem to have been designed for the ears of the international press rather than for the benefit of people fleeing the DR. And it became clear to us that these departures are anything but voluntary.
In interviews, the people we spoke with tended to start by telling us they had chosen to leave. But as soon as we asked them why, they cited threats and other pressures on them to exit the DR, sometimes originating from DR police and militia.
They may not have been dragged out of the country in custody in a formal deportation, but their exit — leaving their families, jobs and lives and for a country with a weak economy — was in no other way consensual. Even Haitian immigration officials later confirmed that they, too, had heard stories of people being threatened with beatings, imprisonment or having their homes burned down if they didn’t leave. In their words, this was volontè-fòse (“forced voluntary” in Haitian Creole).
Given the gravity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding, it is important to consider the experiences of those who are directly affected by threats or risk of deportation rather than simply accepting the DR government’s assessment of its operations. The government is clamoring to redeem itself in the eyes of the international community, but the reality on the ground flies in the face of its statements.