Stranded: The Stateless Haitians

  • Posted on: 14 July 2011
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Imagine being born in a country that does not recognize you and the possibility of being deported to a country that you do not know.  This is the reality for many Dominicans of Haitian descent throughout the Dominican Republic.  Steve Sapienza’s documentary “Stranded: The Stateless Haitians” explores how Dominicans of Haitian descent struggle with government discrimination in the only country they have ever known.  Earlier blogs on statelessness in the Dominican Republic and on the complicated relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are also available.  

 

For many Haitians fleeing dictators and poverty at home and looking for work in the cane fields, the Dominican Republic has long been a refuge. However, possibly a million Haitians or people of Haitian ancestry are now being affected by the adoption of a new law concerning citizenship in the Dominican Republic. Many descendants of Haitian workers living in the Dominican Republic could face deportation to Haiti or be forced to live outside the law, with no legal status in the country. Haitian Noisilus Siri Yan came to the Dominican Republic in the 1970s to work in the sugar industry. He met and married Losita, a Dominican of Haitian descent, whose father worked as a cane cutter. Together they raised four children - all born on Dominican soil. The family lives in Batey 43, an impoverished village of a few hundred Dominicans of Haitian descent, located 43km from the capital Santo Domingo.

 

For many years the sugar cane work kept the Siri Yan family afloat, but when the sugar industry went into decline, the family, along with their neighbours, was left struggling to escape the poverty and desperation of Batey 43."I would describe this place as a desert. One without an exit or entrance. We see the same thing every day. Here you leave and return as if you were meant to stay here for life. It's like a countryside with no life. There are no jobs here .... Life for someone who grows up in a batey means living with misery, living with hard work, going through difficult days," Altagracia, Noisilus' daughter, says. Noisilus found a job clearing brush on a nearby farm for very little pay, and soon the four Siri Yan children became the only hope the family had of pulling itself out of poverty. The father emphasised education as a ticket out of a desperate situation. They would go to school - just like all the other Dominican children - obtain a university education, and get a well-paid white collar job. This was the plan to get the family out of poverty. But eventually the plan began to unravel. The first child to hit a wall was Felipe. He studied mathematics in school and wanted to major in statistics at university. When he graduated high school with good grades, he was offered a university scholarship. All he needed was a copy of his birth certificate and to prove that he was a Dominican citizen. He went to the civil office, but instead of providing him with the necessary documents for school, he was told that he was the child of foreigners, and the office could not give documents to a foreigner. Felipe lost the scholarship, and now works in construction, alongside recent Haitian immigrants, in Santo Domingo. Altagracia Siri Yan is 21 and applied to study at university in 2010. She had a sponsor willing to help pay for her university education - all she needed was to fill out the necessary documents. She went to the local civil affairs office to get a copy of her birth certificate, but they sent her to the main civil affairs archive in the capital Santo Domingo. She went back and forth between the various civil affairs offices 10 times looking for her documents. With the application deadline approaching, Altagracia was losing time and money.

 

Ultimately the window of opportunity shut on her dream of attending university when government officials told her that they could not provide the necessary documents because her parents were foreigners. Sonia Pierre, a Dominican human rights activist, says the changes in Dominican citizenship laws have made hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, in effect, stateless. She points to a landmark international court decision in 2005 calling on the Dominican government to end its discrimination against this population. But the government did the opposite - it hardened its policies and began retroactively withdrawing citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent. Claiming that it is only trying to "clean up" its civil registry rolls, the government now systematically refuses to issue identity documents to Dominicans of Haitian descent.

 

Officials often deny these documents because someone has a Haitian-sounding last name or "looks" Haitian. Sonia Pierre's organisation, the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women (MUDHA), has documented thousands of cases where the government is systematically denying rights to Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. Those affected come from all walks of life - schoolteachers, lawyers, community organisers, doctors, entertainers, caregivers, students, and military officers. Now these people are in danger of becoming stateless in the country of their birth and residency. Many are facing deportation to Haiti or a life outside the law. "If I don't have my ID and I'm walking down the street, immigration may grab and deport me like they do with many Haitians," says Daniela Siri Yan, a vivacious 18-year-old who studied computer science at the local high school. For the Siri Yan children, there is no going to back to Haiti. They consider themselves Dominican. They do not know anything about Haiti. The Haitian government will not take them until they can prove they are Haitian. They are as Felipe says: "Like a horse, tied between two poles." After witnessing her siblings, Felipe and Altagracia, fail to gain the necessary documents for university, Daniela has dropped out of high school. Why bother, she says, if the same thing will happen to her? "The big problems are the economic situation, the poverty and the papers they deny us," Daniela says. "I consider myself Dominican because it is said where you are born is where you have your nationality. I know nothing about Haiti. What would I do in Haiti? I don't even know where Haiti is." Now she and her siblings, like hundreds of thousands of other Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, find themselves stranded in the Dominican Republic without proof of citizenship or a future. Stranded:

 

The stateless Haitians can be seen from Tuesday, July 12, at the following times GMT: Tuesday: 2230; Wednesday: 0930; Thursday: 0330; Friday: 1630; Saturday: 2230; Sunday: 0930; Monday: 0330; Tuesday: 1630. Source: Al Jazeera

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Al Jazeera
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http://english.aljazeera.net/video/americas/2011/11/20111131451389141.html
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For a million young Dominicians with Haitian parents, a new law could strip them of not only their identity but also their rights to education, travel and even marriage. Many young Dominicans of Haitian descent lacking birth certificates say they are facing discrimination by officials in efforts to obain the document. Without it, they are unable to go apply for university, marriage or a passport. Though Haiti has said it will offer citizenship to anyone with Haitian parents, many of the one million young Dominicans have never been to neighbouring Haiti and feel no allegiance to a nation mere miles away on the other side of the border of the same island. Al Jazeera's Ross Velton reports from the Dominican Republic.

3/21/2012
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The Haitian Consulate in Santo Domingo recently sent a team to San Pedro (east) to issue ID cards to Haitians and encourage that resident population to access the civil registry in sugar mill towns, where they live in conditions of exclusion and vulnerability. The charity organization Scalabrinianas Sisters provides advice and information for the drive, with the participation of sugar industry leaders. In the project conducted with funding by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (ACNUR), the consulate team helps the Haitians obtain birth certificates or new passports, which many of the immigrants had lost since leaving Haiti. Without the documents the immigrants find it difficult to acces basic human rights such as education and medical attention.

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/erased-why-tens...
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4/12/2012
By Greg Constantine
Pulitzer Center
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Dominican laws have stripped citizenship from many young people of Haitian descent, barring them from legal employment, education, even marriage. Discriminatory laws and government directives have denied documents such as birth certificates, national IDs and passports to tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. Most of the children in this remote batey (sugar workers town) do not possess any documents.
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While increasing numbers have moved into urban centers like Santo Domingo and Santiago, large numbers of Dominico-Haitians still live in poverty-stricken bateyes on old sugar estates. Most of the children do not possess any documents.
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This 13-year-old boy was born in the Dominican Republic. His father came to the country in 1986 to work on one of the state-owned sugar plantations. They are unable to go to school because they lack the necessary documents. This 24-year-old woman applied for a cedula (national ID) in 2007 and was denied. She spent the next three years trying to get this documentation. She was let go from her job because her employer had to provide her with health insurance, which was not possible without a cedula. As a result of a court case, she was issued her cedula in 2010.This 19-year-old man tried to get a copy of his birth certificate, but because of a government directive called Circular 17, he was denied, and has not been able to receive any documents since then, including a national ID. As a result he has been denied Dominican citizenship.
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This 16-year-old girl was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents who had worked on the sugarcane plantations for decades. She went to school up to 8th grade, but was denied documents and could not continue her schooling. She has a 6-month-old son but was unable to register his birth because she does not have a cedula.
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The mother of these three children was born in the Dominican Republic. None of the children were issued birth certificates because the authorities said their family is of Haitian ancestry.
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A child in a batey on one of the largest privately owned sugar plantations. Ninety percent of the children on the plantation do not have documents. This 23-year-old man was born in Dominican Republic in 1987. Both of his parents are of Haitian ancestry. At the age of 17 he was required to present a copy of his birth certificate to continue his education. He went to the registration office to request a copy, but was told that because his parents were Haitian he would not be given any documents. As a result, he was unable to continue his education and cannot find legal employment. For the past five years, he has been milking cows to earn money.
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The parents of this 22-year-old man were born in Haiti but have spent the past 48 years in the Dominican Republic. When he turned 18, he went to request a copy of his birth certificate so he could apply for his national ID card. His request was denied because his parents are of Haitian descent. Without a cedula, he could not register for university. Now, he cannot seek out formal employment; he possesses no valid documents and is stateless.
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This boy, 16, reads the Bible in his family's room on a batey in the town of Quisqueya. He was born in Dominican Republic but has been denied documents and is now unable to continue his education.
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Children stand outside their school in a remote batey and sing the Dominican national anthem as the Dominican flag is raised before classes. Most will not be permitted to go to school past the 8th grade because they lack sufficient documentation.
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This young man was denied his documents because of his Haitian name. He was born in the Dominican Republic but because he was denied documents he could not continue his education. Now he cuts sugarcane.
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Both of these boys were born in Dominican Republic. Both stopped going to school because they could not provide sufficient documentation to continue their education. They live on a batey located on one of the largest private sugar plantations in the county.
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This 21-year-old man was born in the Dominican Republic. Because his parents are of Haitian descent, he was denied documents and could not continue with school. Without employment opportunities, he had no choice but to start working as a cane-cutter on one of the Dominican Republic's largest sugar plantations. Discriminatory laws and government directives have denied documents such as birth certificates, national IDs and passports to tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. Most of the children in this remote batey (sugar workers town) do not possess any documents. Ethnic Haitians have played a vital role in the development of the Dominican Republic. Haitians have been the backbone of the sugar industry, working as braceros or cane-cutters, and in recent years they have made invaluable contributions to the construction and service industry. But deep-rooted racism and discrimination towards people of Haitian origin have been a part of society in the Dominican Republic since the late 1920s.
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It is estimated that between 500,000 and one million people of Haitian ancestry currently live in the Dominican Republic, including tens of thousands of children and young adults who were born in the country. Yet changes to migration laws in 2004, governmental directives in 2007, and a change in the Constitution of the Dominican Republic in 2010 have denied or retroactively stripped Dominican citizenship away from tens of thousands of Dominico-Haitian youth. Human rights groups see these legal and policy changes as specifically targeting those of Haitian descent. As a result, these residents find themselves unable to access opportunities afforded to other Dominican citizens, such as legal employment, access to social services, or the right continue their education and to legally marry. While the situation in the Dominican Republic has now gained the attention of the Inter-American courts and international human rights organizations, it remains the largest case of statelessness in the Western hemisphere. This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an Atlantic partner site.

Associated Press
By EZEQUIEL ABIU LOPEZ
January 2013
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SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- Julien Henrique spent 50 years toiling in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic and 10 more trying to collect a meager monthly pension after he left the company. Born in neighboring Haiti, Henrique never received a birth certificate before crossing the Dominican border as a young man, when passports were unnecessary for those willing to cut cane under the punishing sun. By the time he left the fields, he still didn't have official documents, which meant he couldn't prove his identity and receive benefits he had worked for all his life. "You come from Haiti, you've got nothing," the 92-year-old Henrique said, leaning on a stick in this sugar workers community in the eastern Dominican Republic.
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Thousands of Haitians toiling in the Dominican Republic live in a similar limbo, enduring not just legal non-existence but mounting hostility toward migrants from the far poorer half of Hispaniola island. That uncertainty, however, is ending for many as they finally win official papers, and with them, long-denied benefits and rights. Workers from the Scalabrinian Association, a Catholic order dedicated to helping migrants and refugees, have been fanning out to rural communities of sugar workers known as bateyes and helping often illiterate workers fill out forms that can be processed by Haitian consular officials. The association, which receives financial assistance for the project from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the European Union, helped win passports and birth certificates for about 2,000 people in 2012 and hopes to secure papers for at least 5,000 more this year, said Idalina Bordignon, the group's director in the Dominican Republic. That's a small but promising launch for a migrant population estimated at around 1 million people, but it's helping address the complaints of many former cane workers, who have held noisy protests in the capital to demand their pensions. While visas are necessary for Haitians to live and work in the Dominican Republic, border guards and police rarely enforce the requirement in sugar-growing regions such as San Pedro de Macoris, about 44 miles (71 kilometers) east of Santo Domingo.
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"This is obviously very small compared with the enormous number of people without papers but it's a start," said Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, a representative of the U.N. refugee commission in the Dominican Republic. For now, Bordignon said, the aid group is focusing on elderly workers who have lost out on benefits. It's also helping women who need documents to register their children for school. While the Dominican Republic is still largely poor, it's vastly better off than Haiti, with an economy about eight times larger. The Dominican Republic thrives as one of the top tourism destinations in the Caribbean and is a significant agricultural exporter, specializing in coffee, sugar and cacao. Both industries require cheap labor that Haitians have long provided. Yet many Dominicans have come to resent the influx of lower-paid workers from across the border and have sought to make their country less hospitable to noncitizens.
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In recent years, the government has adopted new penalties for companies that hire illegal workers and has amended the constitution to no longer automatically grant citizenship to people born in the country before 2010, except for those whose parents were legal residents. The Dominican Republic saw a major influx of Haitians that year, after a massive e In practice, the new laws have rendered many Haitians and their children in the Dominican Republic "stateless," without proof of citizenship in either country, and cut off from legally working or attending school. "The plight of the stateless is extremely important to us," said Valerie Julian, a U.N. representative in the Dominican Republic. "How many there are, we honestly don't know." While a Haitian passport doesn't give migrants legal status, it can help people establish the bureaucratic paper trail that helps them live more freely. For starters, a passport would help migrants open a bank account, get married or register their children for school, said Vargas Llosa. "There is an enormous difference between having a document that says who you are and not having anything," he said.
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So far, the government has backed the campaign, and in December, President Danilo Medina authorized enough funds to pay more than 1,000 former workers their pensions, with their first payments already going out. However, Dominican officials haven't indicated whether they will compensate Haitian workers such as Henrique for decades of lost benefits. Henrique's new passport means he can at least start claiming his $125 monthly pension, enough to see a doctor for the first time in years about a skin condition and to check complications from a leg fracture he'd suffered long ago on the job. "I can't work anymore. I don't have the strength," Henrique said while Scalabrinian volunteers helped others fill out forms. "How am I supposed to survive?"
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Louselene Bien-Aime said she would use the passport to register her four children with the government, two of whom were born in the Dominican Republic before 2010 but don't have birth certificates. The street vendor said she believed the passport would also protect her from frequent immigration raids. Julienne Prophete beamed on a recent afternoon as she held her new passport in her hands, a first since 1971. "I'm very happy," the 62-year-old said. "I'm thankful to God first and the government second, for this precious gift."

Associated Press
By EZEQUIEL ABIU LOPEZ and DANICA COTO
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Thousands of Dominican Republic residents have been thrown into limbo by a ruling from the country's highest court that strips citizenship from anyone born to migrants who entered illegally. The decree affects mainly people of Haitian descent and is likely to worsen already acrimonious relations with neighboring Haiti. Advocacy groups for immigrants expressed anger over Thursday's ruling, saying it ignored the rights of those affected and was based on bigotry against predominantly black Haitians. "This is outrageous," said Ana Maria Belique, spokeswoman for a nonprofit group that has fought for the rights of children born in the Dominican Republic to migrants, such as herself. "It's an injustice based on prejudice and xenophobia." The Constitutional Court's decision cannot be appealed, and it covers those born since 1929 — a category that overwhelmingly includes Haitians brought in to work on farms and their descendants.
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David Abraham, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the decision was part of a larger effort to keep Haitians from entering the Dominican Republic and to encourage self-deportation of those already here. He cited the racial differences between the predominantly black Haitians and mixed-race Dominicans as well as Haiti's plight as one of the world's poorest countries. "The fear of the Dominican Republic, of being pulled down to the level of Haiti economically and the 'blackening' of the country, has been an obsession of Dominican politicians for well over a century," he said. Spanish-speaking Dominicans and Creole-speaking Haitians share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and have a long history of troubles, including wars and massacres. Relations warmed after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people, but tensions have since resumed. The office of Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe declined to comment about the ruling.
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Edwin Paraison, a former Haitian Cabinet minister who has been working to improve relations between the two nations, criticized the court and warned that the ruling could hurt Dominicans. "The sentence expresses a rejection of the Haitian diaspora while setting a dangerous precedent that can be reproduced, if appropriate action isn't taken, against other immigrant communities, including Dominicans, in several countries worldwide," he said in an email. The Constitutional Court said officials are studying birth certificates of more than 16,000 people and noted that electoral authorities have refused to issue identity documents to 40,000 people of Haitian descent. It gave the electoral commission a year to produce a list of people to be excluded from citizenship. The Economy Ministry recently calculated that about 500,000 people born in Haiti now live in the Dominican Republic, but it gave no estimate for the number of people of Haitian descent living in the country. The Dominican Republic's total population is a little over 10 million. The debate over citizenship began to escalate in 2007, when electoral authorities refused to issue identity documents or return copies of them to Dominican-born people of Haitian descent. In 2008, several people challenged those decisions in court, including Belique, whose birth certificate was seized by government officials when she tried to enroll in a local university.
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Until 2010, the Dominican Republic followed the principle of automatically bestowing citizenship to anyone born on its soil. But that year, the government approved a new constitution stating that citizenship will be granted only to those born on its soil to at least one parent of Dominican blood or whose foreign parents are legal residents. Citing that constitution, the court ruled that all Haitian migrants who came to work in Dominican sugarcane fields after 1929 were "in transit," and thus their children were not automatically entitled to citizenship just because they were born here. Dominican lawyer Cristobal Rodriguez said the court disregarded the principle of law retroactivity by applying the criteria of a new constitution approved in 2010 to people born decades earlier. Rights groups and migrant activists said the decision would force many people underground and deprive them of basic needs and public services.
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Activists said they would likely seek help from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn might submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Jorge Duany, an anthropology professor at Florida International University who has studied the migration of Dominicans in the Caribbean, said the decision comes after countless years of friction between the two countries. "The impact could be truly catastrophic," he said. "They are stigmatizing an entire Haitian population."
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Associated Press writer Ezequiel Abiu Lopez reported this story in Santo Domingo and Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. AP writers Trenton Daniel and Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.

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