Despite Gang Violence, the Dominican Republic Continues to Deport Haitians
Despite gang violence, kidnappings in Haiti, Dominicans continue to deport Haitians
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
UPDATED MARCH 20
The nursing mother was headed to introduce her husband to his son for the first time traveling on the back of a moto-taxi with their 2-month old baby. That’s when she says police in the Dominican Republic stopped them. It was 10 p.m., they had just passed Dajabón, the Dominican border town a short bridge away from Haiti, and Yvonie Deshommes feared what would happen next. Police did not question her about her immigration status, or even request to see her documents. “There’s none of that. They simply arrest you, throw you in detention and leave you,” Deshommes said, sitting on a sidewalk trying to soothe her wailing baby, soon after she and hundreds of other deported Haitians stepped off a Dominican government bus in this northeast Haitian border town in the middle of the night. “He’s hungry and he won’t take the breast, and I can’t find milk,” she said about her infant, Jonathan Marcellus. “What can you do? You can’t do anything to them when they detain you. You have no choice but to accept it.”
Ramped up deportations and border enforcement by the Dominican Republic are leading to the expulsion of thousands of Haitians back to their crisis-wrecked country, where vicious armed gangs, kidnappings, a deadly cholera outbreak, worsening hunger and unemployment and deepening despair are pushing the country to the brink. Haitians say they aren’t just being arrested and detained en masse in the Dominican Republic, they’re often subjected to physical abuse by Dominican law enforcement amid an increasing climate of anti-Haitian prejudice in the mixed-race Spanish-speaking nation. “The Dominicans slap us, kick us, pull knives out on us. They are doing a lot of things to us that are not merited,” Youwad Altidor, 24, said as he and other recently repatriated migrants prepared to spend the night at a border reception center in Ouanaminthe run by the International Organization for Migration.
The roundups have become so widespread and frequent that human-rights groups, the United States and the United Nations have all expressed concern or called for restraint amid reports that among those being forcefully removed are unaccompanied children, pregnant women and individuals who aren’t Haitian. “Sometimes we have three, five, six, seven cases a day of children who arrive without any parents,” said Michelot Difficile, who runs the International Organization for Migration’s operations in northern Haiti. “Sometimes they grab them with their school uniforms still on.” A group of migrants waiting at a reception center in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, after being returned from the Dominican Republic. They are among 13,805 Haitians who were deported from the neighboring country in January, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration.
Dominican Foreign Minister Roberto Álvarez said the repatriation of unaccompanied minors “is certainly not a practice.” The overwhelming number of the 1,800-plus minors who were detained last year without their parents were handed over to Haiti’s child welfare agency, the Institut du Bien-Être Social et de Recherches, IBESR, for family reunification, he said. He also disputes accusations that racism is fueling the deportations, which began in earnest last year and triggered a diplomatic row with the United States after its embassy in Santo Domingo warned darker-skinned Americans they may be profiled and detained due to the “widespread operations.” “People are not being sent back, repatriated because they’re Black. It’s because they are here illegally and because we can’t take care of the numbers,” Álvarez said. “We have tremendous poverty in our country and great needs and those have to come first.”
The International Organization for Migration says 154,333 Haitians were expelled by the Dominican Republic last year, about 30,000 fewer than the Dominican government’s figures, and about 87% of all deportations to Haiti in 2022. Already this year, more than 21,391 Haitians have been forcefully returned, with most passing through Ouanaminthe. A bustling border town of dirt roads and rising new construction, it’s where the river Massacre and a small concrete bridge separate the two countries. Behind a gray iron gate, Dominican border agents stand guard, speaking Spanish and Haitian-Kreyòl to buyers and sellers whose Haitian gourdes and Dominican pesos are fueling trade, human trafficking and other contraband.
Mike Tyson Laguerre, who migrated to the Dominican Republic two years ago by illegally crossing the 245-mile porous border through the bushes, said life was decent until November, when Dominican President Luis Abinader published decree No. 668-22. The law established a specialized police unit to prevent people from squatting on private or public property. But critics charge that it’s feeding decades of tensions and mistrust in a country where people have been known to be targeted based on their darker complexion. On an almost daily basis, the United Nations International Organization for Migration is tasked with receiving Haitian migrants who have been repatriated by boat from the United States and by airplane from The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
By far, the largest group of Haitian returnees are from the neighboring Dominican Republic who are returned by land. “I was on the run,” Laguerre said, describing how immigration officers raided the motel where he and others Haitians were staying in the northern resort town of Puerto Plata in the middle of the night. Laguerre was able to hide at first with his children, but decided to return to Haiti on his own. He was in Ouanaminthe waiting for transport to his hometown of Cap-Haïtien, about 45 minutes away. He accused the motel owner of sending police and immigration after them. Pointing to his 11-month-old baby and three other children, sitting on a bench in the dark at the border reception center, Laguerre said after three days of sleeping in the bushes he decided to go back to Haiti with his wife and kids. “Rather than die in a foreign land, it’s better for me to die at home,” he said. “I have no intentions to live in a country like that.”
Haitians from all walks of life are fleeing to the Dominican Republic to escape Haiti’s disintegration. Those with money are buying properties and relocating their businesses while those with little means eke out a living in construction and other low-wage jobs. Haiti’s northeast land border with the Dominican Republic in the city of Ouanaminthe is one of the busiest and leads in terms of deportations of migrants who are forcefully returned. Álvarez, the Dominican foreign minister, told the Miami Herald that 34 percent of his country’s maternity wards are occupied by Haitian women, and 16 percent of the country’s health budget is going toward helping Haitians. “We’re being overrun and the international community is nowhere to be found, missing in action. We cannot solve Haiti’s problems. Haiti’s government, Haiti’s rulers, Haiti’s elite have a duty to their population. We do not have that responsibility.” Álvarez told the U.N.’s Security Council in January that Haiti’s spiraling turmoil is creating a national security threat for his country.
The trafficking of people, weapons, illicit drugs and goods at the border “are all scourges that our government is fighting tooth and nail to address with the assistance of our international partners under increasingly difficult conditions.” Where possible, the Dominican Republic has tried to assist fleeing Haitians, including the case of a journalist who sought refuge there after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt, only to find himself detained and placed in deportation proceedings. After the journalist showed proof that he had registered his case with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Santo Domingo, Álvarez personally got involved and halted the deportation.
Last month, Volker Türk, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, reiterated his call for deportations to Haiti to stop. He made the call after traveling to Ouanaminthe, where Dominicans are building a border wall and pedestrians and motorcycle drivers wade through crowds of sellers under the watchful eyes of Dominican border agents. During the visit, Türk heard about abuse and the cage-like white buses that drop Haitians off at all hours of night and on holidays without advance notice, all in violation of a 1999 protocol between the two countries. “The picture that emerges is one of utter disregard for the human being, for the Haitians themselves,” Türk told the Herald. “What they told me is that they felt very humiliated. They are picked up very early in the morning, their documents are left behind. Some told me they end up in detention and they have to buy their way out of detention. Some have been in the Dominican Republic for years. ... I heard about pregnant women who are being deported, unaccompanied and separated children.”
The Ouanaminthe-Dajabón border, which straddles Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola, has become busy with not just merchants crossing but daily deportations of Haitians by Dominican authorities. In January 2023, Haitians were still being deported across the border as the security, economic and humanitarian crises in Haiti worsened. During a visit to the area, a Herald reporter attempted to speak with Dominican immigration officials but was unsuccessful. Haitian immigration agents, speaking off record, accused Dominican officials of violating the protocol, which among other things, dictates the hours during which repatriations can take place. “The bulk of the people we receive arrive after 6 p.m., after 7 p.m.,” said Difficile, the International Organization for Migration officer, said, noting that in January the agency received four to six buses a day.
On a given day, Difficile can be found rushing between Ouanaminthe and Cap-Haïtien, where airplanes from The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands bring back deported migrants, and the U.S. Coast Guard repatriates those caught at sea. Haiti’s northeast land border with the Dominican Republic in the city of Ouanaminthe is one of the busiest and leads in terms of deportations of migrants who are forcefully returned. That was the case in late January, when 108 Haitians were returned on three different flights from the nearby Turks and Caicos. They were followed by two groups of migrants from The Bahamas, then by 45 Haitian migrants who were aboard a white sailboat that washed up off Virginia Key. The next day, 259 Haitians, including 19 children, arrived at the Ouanaminthe border crossing, which along with a crossing at Belladère in the Central Plateau account for the bulk of Dominican deportations. “We give food, kits and money to those who arrive” by boat and airplane in Cap-Haïtien, Difficile said, while the group purchases bus tickets for those kicked out of the Dominican Republic and seeking help returning home.
With the exception of the U.S., which notifies Haiti in advance of migrants’ arrivals, countries give Haiti no advance warning, International Organization for Migration officials say, adding that coordination between the deporting countries and Haitian authorities is key to ensuring returnees are treated with dignity. Álvarez said until now there has been a lack of “clear guidelines,” and training is under way to improve the process of repatriations. “The intention has always been to respect the protocol,” he said.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti share a long and complex history that has fueled resentment, political tensions, fear and mistrust. Haiti occupied the country for 22 years, beginning in 1822, and in 1937 thousands of Haitians were massacred by dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Tensions rose after a 2013 Dominican court decision to strip citizenship from Black Dominicans of Haitian descent. Rocio Cruz, who serves as country director for a nonprofit that works with 29 communities along the Elías Piña-Belladère border, acknowledges the simmering tensions. But there are ongoing efforts, she said, to foster “integrated relationships.” “We promote reconciling relationships and valuing people for who they are,” Rocio said about her organization, Food for the Hungry. “It’s not how you look, it’s not the color of your skin. ... It’s that you have value, and that is what we teach the people who we serve.”
While Haiti continues to descend into chaos, the rural northeast region of the country is one of the few places that remains relatively calm. Still, the area remains volatile as factories lay off employees and the economy and humanitarian situation continue to worsen. Still, the tensions remain. “I would like to stay in my country because I don’t like Saint-Domingue,” Kenderley Merilien said, using the name Haitians often use to refer to the eastern part of the island. “If I could find someone to help me finish school, I would stay because it would allow me to serve my country.” Merilien said he went to Santo Domingo hoping to be able to finish school. Instead, he found work in a ceramics factory. He was arrested in front of the house he shared with a cousin, he said, and deported two days later. Haiti’s northeast land border with the Dominican Republic in the city of Ouanaminthe is one of the busiest and leads in terms of deportations of migrants who are forcefully returned. Thene Romain, 23, said he had no choice but to go to the Dominican Republic after he was laid off from his construction job in Haiti due to the gang violence. Romain said he tried to get a visa so he could legally remain in the country. But after selling his motorcycle to pay for the document, he soon learned he had been defrauded by racketeers — a common complaint among undocumented Haitian migrants. Haiti “is in very dire straits and it’s not the time to think of deporting Haitians,” the U.N.’s Türk said. “It’s not just the Dominican Republic. It’s for every country that is carrying out deportations.”
Photo Credit: Miami Herald
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