OPINION

Opinion: Legion of ‘ghosts’ of Haitian descent striving to survive in the Dominican Republic

TIERRA NUEVA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - MARCH 03: A Haitian teenager stands at the border gate on March 3, 2012 in the border town of Tierra Nueva, Dominican Republic. The Dominican border is a poor and neglected part of the country that depends on trade with neighboring Haiti. Many of the area residents are Haitian or of Haitian decent with thousands having poured across the border after the earthquake in January 2010 in search of jobs and homes.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

TIERRA NUEVA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - MARCH 03: A Haitian teenager stands at the border gate on March 3, 2012 in the border town of Tierra Nueva, Dominican Republic. The Dominican border is a poor and neglected part of the country that depends on trade with neighboring Haiti. Many of the area residents are Haitian or of Haitian decent with thousands having poured across the border after the earthquake in January 2010 in search of jobs and homes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

A straight-A student rejected from high school, a promising baseball player unable to pursue a successful career, a seriously ill woman prevented from seeing a doctor, a human rights activist virtually imprisoned in his own country.

The thing they all have in common is what they do not have: a small piece of paper with their identification data printed on it.

The multi-colored card may be small, but it makes the difference between poverty and marginalization and a secure job, access to medical facilities, a school place and a chance in life. It is a card that has split a country into a thousand pieces. One that now threatens to turn tens of thousands of people into virtual ‘ghosts,’ without a country to call home.

The Dominican Republic has, for decades, turned its back on people like Giselle. They insist they are taking swift action to resolve this crisis, but the many people we have met tell a strikingly different story.

- Carolina Jiménez

Authorities in the Dominican Republic have turned this small piece of paper into a precious commodity for thousands who were born to foreign parents or grandparents – manufacturing four generations of stateless people.

The twisted logic goes like this: for years, Dominican constitutions granted nationality to all those born in the country, with few limited exceptions. Then a 2013 judgement by the Dominican Constitutional Court decided that anyone born to undocumented foreign parents or grandparents in the Dominican Republic since 1929 does not have the automatic right to the nationality and hence to a birth certificate. Without that document, they don’t have access to the most basic human rights. They are second-class citizens.

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It is the result of a troubled history between two countries that share a small island in the Caribbean. Since the 1920s, Haitian migrant workers, mostly men, have been drawn into the Dominican Republic as seasonal workers in the sugar cane industry. Between 1952 and 1986, Haitian workers were contracted as cutters for the sugar cane harvest in the Dominican Republic through bilateral agreements between both governments.

During those years, Haitian migrants were mostly confined to settlements within the plantations. But from the mid-1980s onward, a decrease in the demand for sugar caused by a drastic fall in international prices, combined with the development of the tourism industry in the Dominican Republic, prompted many Haitian migrant workers to seek opportunities outside the plantations.

A powerful and discriminatory anti-migration discourse soon engulfed the political arena, prompting calls to limit the number of Haitian migrants and restrict their descendants’ access to Dominican nationality.

Different governments throughout the years embraced such discourse and adopted increasingly ruthless measures against Dominicans of Haitian descent.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling in 2013 was the tip of the iceberg that made statelessness a matter of law for tens of thousands of people born and bred in the Dominican Republic, often for generations.

Thousands of people were suddenly at risk of being sent “back” to Haiti, even though most had never even been to the country, had no relatives there, and were unable to speak the same language.

Since then, and partly responding to an international outcry against the extreme measures, the authorities have tried to mitigate some of the dire effects of the ruling.

Thanks to such effort, a part of the affected population has been able to re-access nationality and with it their birth certificates and identity cards. But the problem is far from being solved.

There are groups of people to whom the ruling has brought no solution at all. And others for whom the solution has proved to be inadequate and insufficient.

A six-month naturalization program that expired in February 2015 was incompatible with human rights standards as it obliged a group of people born in the country to register themselves as foreigners. With its highly bureaucratic demands, the plan also proved hard to comply with. With not enough publicity given to it, many affected people didn’t even know it existed.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic have hailed the plan as a success and declared that no one in the country is stateless. Amnesty International’s research utterly disproves this claim.

We have spoken to dozens of people without identity cards for whom life has become almost unbearable.

Giselle is one of them. She was born in 1979 in the Dominican Republic, but her Haitian parents were never allowed to register her birth.

In 1996, she took the initiative to try to register herself but, just like her parents had been, she was not allowed. Desperate to get any papers, in early 2015 she tried to enroll on the naturalization plan but was turned away by government officials. They asked her to present a copy of her mother’s identity card, which she didn’t have.  

Giselle used to earn a living cleaning houses but had to stop working two years ago because of health problems. She has a hernia and cannot afford the tests and treatment. As she has no identity card, the public hospital is asking her to pay.

The Dominican Republic has, for decades, turned its back on people like Giselle. They insist they are taking swift action to resolve this crisis, but the many people we have met tell a strikingly different story.

As one Dominican girl of Haitian descent recently told me: “I am just sitting at home. I don’t do anything because they don’t accept me in school. I would like to be a teacher.”

As things stand, she will never be able to continue with her studies, let alone teach.  

The question is, How far is the Dominican Republic willing to go against its own people?

Carolina Jiménez is the Americas Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International.

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