Read, Debate: Engage.
Beyond Citizenship

Living in limbo: stateless Haitians in the Dominican Republic

Zacarías Toussaint is a 26 year-old man born and raised in the Dominican Republic. He has never left the country, not even for tourism. Nevertheless, the country in which he grew up does not consider him one of its citizens.

Born to Haitian parents, Toussaint is stateless, and so are his two older sisters. He claims that, in spite of that, treatment differs according to the migrants' social class. "There seems to be a love and hate relationship: rich Haitians are welcome, but the less favoured are particularly discriminated against."

They are not alone in their struggles. The situation is widespread among Haitians and their descendants born and residing in the Dominican Republic, who face a bleak outlook for immediate change.

Although recent data is unclear, in 2015 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that more than 200,000 people experienced statelessness in the Dominican Republic. A complex social, political and judicial entanglement with historical roots in the country leads to widespread human rights violations linked to Haitian migration.

© Micah Camper

Historic mobility on Hispaniola

Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which together make up Hispaniola Island in the Caribbean Sea, share an almost 400 km long border established in 1929. Free human mobility on the island has been a constant trend throughout both countries' history, making the Dominican-Haitian border one of the most important migration corridors in the Caribbean.

In the early 1900s, when the Dominican Republic needed workers to develop its thriving sugarcane industry, Haitians were encouraged to migrate and accept low-paying jobs in the fields.

Eventually, other sectors of the Dominican economy started benefitting from Haitian labour as well. "Traditionally, Haitians have been doing the sugarcane harvesting, but they are now part of the hospitality, construction, and other economic sectors," explained Brian Concannon, the Executive Director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

Despite their important role in the Dominican Republic's current labour force, there is strong political and social pressure to control and prevent the presence of Haitian-Dominicans in the country.

According to Concannon, this is a paradoxical situation: "On the one hand, the employers and the economy need Haitians, [but] there is value to some political leaders to blame the country's problems on immigrants."

Considering Haiti's multifactor crisis in recent years resulting from the 2010 earthquake - which left a trail of destruction and more than 200,000 thousand people dead - as well as the growing political instability, many Haitians were forced to flee and seek refuge elsewhere, including the neighbouring nation.

From the Dominican perspective, this puts an economic burden on the country.

Lack of Dominican-Haitian integration

Notwithstanding the growing number of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, there were little efforts made to integrate migrants and people of Haitian ancestry into Dominican society.

Many of them are relegated to living in poor and outlying communities known as bateyes, a term that historically was used to name communities centred around sugarcane processing facilities.

Anti-Haitian sentiments are also present in the Dominican Republic's judiciary system. In 2013, the crisis hit a boiling point when the Supreme Court aimed to denationalise over 130,000 people of Haitian ancestry. In its ruling, the Court retroactively and collectively revoked the national status of people born in the Dominican Republic since 1929 and those whose parents had an "irregular" or "non-resident" immigration status.

Subsequently, a law passed in 2014 (Law number 169-14) in a bid to address the problems that arose from the Court's decision. But according to Bridget Wooding, a Coordinator at the Caribbean Migrants Observatory (Obmica), the law's application was weak.

She claimed that Dominican legal loopholes are "potentially building on a kind of intergenerational transmission of statelessness." 

Furthermore, the Constitution of the Dominican Republic does not grant nationality to the children of foreigners who reside illegally in Dominican territory or who find themselves in transit. This affirms Wooding's fear that the number of stateless people in the country will continue to rise. 

Toussaint expressed gratitude overthe fact that his young nephew is a national, a status he inherited from his Dominican father. Had his sister had a child with another undocumented Haitian descendant, Toussaint's nephew would face the same uncertain status as his family members.

© Tylor Legal

Human Rights violations

In this scenario, thousands of Dominican-Haitians and Haitian migrants are stripped of access to basic services and are denied the documentation crucial for their civic existence.

"I lost an opportunity to study abroad because I lacked documents to proceed with it," Toussaint told FairPlanet. He further mentioned that public health and education services can be inaccessible to many people in his position.

Concannon from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti added that even Dominican-Haitian citizens in the country can suffer prejudice. "They are subject to all kinds of discrimination even if they get citizenship, such as discrimination in access to services like hospitals, schools or employment," he explained.

Beyond bureaucratic hurdles, human rights of Haitians are also violated through frequent arrests and deportations. Obmica's Wooding explained that "in the absence of effective migration control mechanisms at the point of entry, what successive governments have done is to use deportations as a bland tool."

But not all those who are deported have entered the country through illegal means. There is evidence that the criteria to deport someone are fairly arbitrary and racially-motivated. This led the United States Embassy in Santo Domingo to warn black American tourists in the country about Dominican officers targeting people based on their appearance.

Numerous international organisations are closely monitoring the situation in the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, recent political developments, like the construction of a wall dividing the two countries, have captured media attention globally. But the international spotlight on stateless people in the Dominican Republic is met with resentment by its government.

Concannon stated that whenever international organisations publish documents suggesting that the Dominican Republic is discriminating against Haitians, the response is a resurgence of discrimination in the name of the "country's sovereignty." This only weakens the opportunity of addressing the needs of people whose rights are denied.

As an undocumented person, Zacarías Toussaint acknowledges his state of vulnerability and claims that he sees no positive prospects on the horizon. His parents have been living in the country for 35 years, and hardly anything changed since they arrived. The young man is determined to confront these challenges and continue with his life, acknowledging that a solution seems distant and that waiting for it is not a viable option, he noted.

Toussaint described the sensation of statelessness as a "lingering weight of having your rights denied."

Working with the youth in his region, Monte Plata, what hurts Toussaint the most is seeing young people "with tremendous skills not having a chance to develop them."