What We Saw: Delegation reports back after visit to DR-Haiti border

Human Rights Delegation Encounters Hundreds Fleeing the Dominican Republic into Haiti in Harrowing Conditions

Bus prepares to cross border into Haiti.Bus prepares to cross border into Haiti.In 2013, decision 168-13 by the Dominican Constitutional Court set in motion a series of events that have led to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic (DR), which has spilled, into Haiti. The 2013 decision retroactively stripped citizenship from anyone born in the DR to undocumented parents since 1929. This ruling effectively rendered about a quarter of a million people, who mostly worked in the sugar cane fields or on the construction projects across the DR, stateless.

Amid backlash from the international community, the Dominican government adopted Law 169-14, allowing many of these Dominicans of Haitian descent a legal pathway to retain their citizenship, as well as Decree 327-13, allowing Haitians in the DR without status to be regularized. Nevertheless, these processes were expensive and burdensome and very few had the means to obtain all the proper documentation before the application deadline. Consequently, many were forced across the border to a country that many barely knew.

On 25 June 2015, a delegation of nine human rights lawyers and law students from the United States, Haiti, Australia, and Canada visited the border between Haiti and the DR. Delegation members were drawn from the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). Over just four hours, the delegation witnessed hundreds of people crossing between the towns of Comendador (DR) and Belladère (Haiti).

During their trip, the consequences of the immigration of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry and Haitian immigrants were apparent. Even before reaching the border town of Belladère, the delegation encountered crowded American school buses overloaded with people and their personal belongings — including large bags, mattresses, tarps, and bed-frames — tied to the roof of each bus.

The delegation made five key observations. First, many of the occupants of the buses exiting the DR had been there for many years. The passengers were overwhelmingly young men, although others were much older. The buses included a few young boys, girls, and infants. None of the adults the delegation spoke with were born in the DR. The people with whom the delegation spoke had generally spent two to eight years in the DR, although others had been there longer, and one person had not left the DR since the 1970s. Many had children who had been born in the DR who were not accompanying them and who had never been to Haiti before.

Second, the majority of people were not leaving voluntarily. Though border officials on both sides were adamant that the departures were voluntary and part of seasonal migration patterns, this generally was not the case. People crossing the border initially tended to describe themselves as leaving voluntarily, but after further questioning, many reported having experienced threats and other pressures to leave the DR, sometimes from DR police and militia. These specific fears were compounded by a climate of persecution of those perceived as Haitian by Dominican authorities, which induced many of those with whom we spoke into states of panic. Most left their livelihoods and/or families behind. Staff from Haiti’s National Office of Immigration (Office National de la Migration or “ONM”) located at the border crossing said they had heard stories of people being beaten, thrown into prison, or having their homes burned down if they didn’t leave. They called it “volontè fòse” (forced voluntary).

Third, another alarming observation suggests that the number of people crossing the border may be underreported. The delegation witnessed approximately 400 people entering into Haiti from the DR, the majority of whom were neither registered nor accounted for by Haitian officials, during four hours spent at a single border crossing. This suggests that existing deportation and flight statistics do not account for the true numbers. An official from ONM estimated that three to five buses crossed into Haiti daily, each carrying roughly seventy to seventy-five people. The delegation, however, observed five yellow school buses packed with people, as well as a cargo truck crossing into Haiti during only the four-hour period spent at the border, suggesting that many more people would cross on any given day. Each bus carried roughly seventy to ninety passengers as well as their personal belongings.

Fourth, despite eligibility for regularization, no one could meet the documentary requirements. Every adult the delegation spoke with was born in Haiti; many showed delegation members their Haitian birth certificates. None reported having a passport. Although DR Decree 327-13 provides that applications for regularization may include any of five alternative identification documents, the delegation heard that in practice DR officials were only willing to accept a passport. Many had laminated cards showing they applied for regularization, but most did not believe that the cards would protect them from forced migration.

Finally, the fifth observation was that conditions of travel were unsafe and unsanitary. The ONM had an office and three personnel on the Haiti side of this border crossing, but a lack of resources prevented them from ensuring those arriving had access to medical care, food and water, safe means of travel, transitional housing, or employment placements. The vehicles carrying those fleeing were bound for a variety of Haitian cities and towns.

Once they reached the border, those entering Haiti were not provided with any social services. Haiti’s ONM had an office with three personnel on site during our visit. One of the agents boarded the buses and inquired about whether the passengers’ re-entry was voluntary. An interview with ONM’s staff revealed a lack of resources and authority from the Haitian government to offer social services. According to ONM’s staff, a shelter with 33 beds was built at this border crossing in 2008 for victims of trafficking and involuntary return, but the beds were used to house the customs officers instead. Earlier in the week, ONM staff had identified a family of two adult women and three children who were crossing border at 10 p.m.

One member of the staff we interviewed took the family into his home that night to keep them safe. The other two staffers reported regularly taking people into their homes. ONM reported receiving 100,000 Gourdes (US$2,000) and 100 amenity kits (with toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.) from the Haitian government on 22 June 2015. This money allows ONM to give families in need approximately 1500 Gourdes (US$30) as they enter Haiti. But this money will not last long, and ONM does not know when they will receive another instalment. ONM also complained about the lack of security to patrol the border and ensure the safety of vulnerable women and children.

An office of the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d’Haiti) is located at the border, but we did not see any officers patrolling the border. In general, the delegation observed that ONM was unable to provide any medical, food, water, transitional housing arrangements, or safe and sanitary transportation for most of the individuals coming into Haiti.

On the DR side of the border, we observed a cargo truck – which had previously been used to transport plantains – pull up alongside one of the full school buses parked near the border. We learned that the bus refused to continue on to Haiti, and so had negotiated with the cargo truck to 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 in size than the school bus, and not designed for carrying people, especially for hours in the hot sun. Many passengers were angry, and yelled at the driver, claiming they felt they were being treated like animals.

The passengers tried to negotiate, but they had little bargaining power and ultimately no choice but to begin helping one another transfer their belongings from the roof of the bus into the bed of the truck. A few women with babies on their laps were allowed to sit in the front of the truck with the drivers. All others, including several small children, had to stand or sit on their luggage in the back of truck’s dusty steel box. Several individuals hung off the sides of the truck.

An official on the DR side of the border who approached the delegation identifying himself as a human rights expert told the delegation that conditions on the buses were not a Dominican concern, but rather a Haitian one.

Members of the delegation later attended a press conference in Boston at the State House on June 30th co-hosted by State Senator Linda Forry and State Representative Dan Cullinane where they denounced the current humanitarian crisis in the DR. Forry and Cullinane were joined by a number of community leaders and called upon attendees to contact their elected officials to ensure that they were aware of the ongoing crisis. The two legislators asked that all attendees show solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian immigrants in DR. In a rousing speech, former State Representative Marie St. Fleur, the first Haitian-American to be elected to office in Massachusetts, highlighted that people of Haitian descent have been suffering in the DR for centuries but the international community’s response to the current crisis is a defining moment.

A group of Haitian-American community activists have organized a demonstration set to take place on July 9th, including a march from the office of the Haitian General Consulate Office to the office of the DR General Consulate to call attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the DR.

Rodline Louijeune is a student at Boston College Law School. She is currently an Ella Baker Legal Fellow at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).