From Haiti to the DR & Back

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From Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Back: Disjunctive Pattern of Immigration on Hispaniola in the Aftermath of the Haitian Earthquake

On the island of Hispaniola, Haiti’s next-door neighbor is the much more prosperous Dominican Republic (D.R.).  Historically, many Haitians have found better job opportunities and higher standards of living, and established families on the Dominican side of the island. The process got a big boost after even more Haitians poured into the D.R. as refugees during the aftermath of the tragic earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010.  The earthquake that killed over 200,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more has left nearly 1.6 million Haitians homeless and destroyed much of the nation’s basic infrastructure.  A large portion of the Haitian population still lives in tents a year and half after the earthquake, struggling to survive on limited public services and medical aid while battling a cholera epidemic.  In spite of all this misery, Haiti now faces its greatest challenge yet:  the repatriation of its 1.2 million displaced citizens.[i] This new obstacle has complicated the issues of citizenship and human rights, leaving Haiti’s displaced population to an uncertain fate in which immigration, especially to the neighboring D.R., appears to be the only viable solution.

Roots of Emigration

The D.R., widely undamaged by the earthquake, was the first nation to offer aid to Haiti—a surprising fact considering their tumultuous and troubled history.  According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), until the 1960s these two nations were relatively similar in terms of geography and historical institutions.  However, since then, “the Dominican Republic has consistently outperformed Haiti . . . in terms of implementation of structural measures, stabilization policies, as well as political stability.  Meanwhile, Haiti has lagged the region in implementing structural policies, while being subject to numerous political shocks that have severely affected its growth performance.”[ii] These structural, political, and economic differences underscore many of the conflicts that have emerged since the 1960s and are largely responsible for the vital role played by Haitian emigration to the D.R.

Emigration and immigration, arguably the most persistent sources of friction between the two nations, can be traced back to colonial hostility between the Spanish D.R. and French Haiti.  Since this early era of discord, their relationship has hardly been amicable.  Haiti’s invasion and occupation of the D.R. from 1822 to 1844, and the 1937 “Perejil Massacre,” in which the late Dominican president and genocidal figure, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the military to kill upwards of 35,000 Haitians residing in the D.R., both serve as concrete evidence of the bitter conflict and violence along the Dominican-Haitian border. Beginning in 1975, immigration was brought to the fore due to the rapid growth of the Dominican sugar economy.  During this period, the D.R. actively recruited Haitian unskilled workers and paid the Haitian government a contractor’s fee for access to this cheap, slave-like labor force.  Immigration to the D.R. increased exponentially when, in the 1980s, Haiti’s poor ecological conditions were exacerbated by the economic and social situation found there, leading some to describe the nation as an “environmental basket-case.”[iii]

Already plagued by hopeless environmental conditions, the recent increase in international competition over markets continues to lead many Haitians to abandon the agricultural sector, leaving millions without the ability to earn income or to acquire basic resources.[iv] This has resulted in a nation almost unable to feed itself.  Although global competition is shrinking the once-thriving Dominican sugar industry, sugar continues to be a major source of income for the D.R. and a motivation for Haitians to cross the border, legally or not.  Even while employment opportunities for Haitians in the Dominican sugar-cane industry have steeply diminished, many continue to immigrate and today populate a majority of its sugar-cane fields. 

In addition, Haitian labor now fuels other sweatshop manufacturing and service industries in the D.R., such as construction, tourism, and commerce. These undesirable employment opportunities have resulted in intense resentment on both sides of the job market and the formation of racialized and stigmatized attitudes regarding Haitian workers, as well as motivated a continuous flow of immigrant traffic across the border.[v] Dominicans tend to interpret this Haitian presence in their country negatively; Dominican polls reveal support for the repatriation of Haitians, and terms like antihaitianismo indicate widespread racist bias against the Haitian population, a prejudice that has been cultivated by their long and hostile common experience.  This long-standing and almost exclusively intolerant history is worsened by the ruinous 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, and the consequential increase in immigration, as well as other forms of dependence upon the D.R.  The result only further increased tension between Haiti and the D.R., leading to the Dominican government’s heartless solution to speed the deportations of displaced Haitians. 

Rise of Repatriation

In 2007, estimates put the number of Haitians in the D.R. at around 850,000, a figure that includes Haitians and Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, both documented and undocumented.[vi] Since the earthquake in 2010, this number has increased to almost one million, accounting for nearly a tenth of the D.R.’s 9.5 million people.[vii] With each new wave of refugees, the existing Haitian immigrant community faces the growing threat of massive deportation pressures coming from the D.R.  The repatriation, centrally planned and executed by the military, is frequently accompanied by physical violence and verbal abuse, and is manifested in the form of mass expulsions as well as daily individual deportations.  For this reason, feelings of desperation among residents are common.  The recent spike in repatriations is a clear indication that the Haitian presence is being felt more heavily and perceived more negatively since the earthquake. 

The latest wave of repatriations was established under a constitutional reform passed on January 26, 2010, just days after Haiti’s earthquake.  The Dominican National Assembly instituted this reform specifically to combat a rush of Haitians flooding across the 214 mile-long border, fearing that refugees from the earthquake would seek permanent residence.  The D.R. wanted to ensure that it would not be forced to “shoulder responsibility for a poverty-stricken country made worse by inept government and years of failed international oversight.”[viii] This constitutional alteration has redefined Dominican citizenship, as it gives the D.R. the right to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrant parents, even if the children were born on Dominican soil.  Essentially, the Dominican government has ignored a constitutional right to nationality for Dominican residents, thereby de-nationalizing thousands of Dominican citizens of Haitian descent.[ix] What began as a reaction to increased post-earthquake immigration has gained power as a drive to fundamentally change both the lives of immigrants and their movement.

The reverberations are profound.  For many Haitians in the D.R., it is nearly impossible to prove their parents’ nationality due to the difficulty of obtaining necessary documents.  Without Dominican national identification, Dominicans of Haitian descent are systematically denied health care, enrollment in universities, land ownership, political opportunities, and marriage licenses.  They also remain unqualified for most jobs, and are therefore marginalized from the rest of society.  Even Haitians with jobs can be mistreated and made vulnerable to exploitation because they lack rights as a result of their illegal and undocumented status.

Those Haitians born in the D.R., or who have lived there for their entire lives, can still face the fearful prospect of “summary deportation,” in which they are forced to return to Haiti “without right of appeal, to a country that the deportee has never seen before and where economic opportunities are virtually non-existent.”[x] The fact that most Haitians who grew up in the D.R. only speak Spanish, not Haitian Creole or French, illustrates the vast identity crisis that this situation evokes.  To complicate the situation even further, the Haitian government, as a matter of course, does not recognize deported Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent as citizens because they have never resided in the country.

Although the Dominican government claims it has respected human rights during deportations, it has received intense criticism for its actions.  The high number of repatriations, which total over 6,000 since February 2011, combined with the recent ruling against birthright citizenship for first-generation Haitians in the D.R., have led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to challenge Dominican authorities on the issue.[xi] The Commission argues that the D.R.’s recent immigration law initiatives contradict international law, particularly if they are meant to be implemented retroactively.[xii] Several human rights activist groups, such as Refugees International, have also taken a stance against the D.R.’s policies, arguing that the D.R. is not simply “targeting illegal immigrants,” as the Dominican government suggests.  Rather, they contend that Haitians are being targeted specifically on the basis of nationality, as supported by fact that the ratio of deportations of non-Haitian illegal immigrants is not nearly as high as those of Haitian descent.  On these grounds, anyone with a French-sounding name or Haitian appearance is almost routinely subject to deportation.  The Dominican political message is clear:  identifiable Haitians are not wanted.

The Debate

Haiti has long been seen as an at-risk nation, characterized by its acute poverty.  Today, 54% of its population lives on less than USD 1 a day, and 78% survives on only USD 2 a day.[xiii] Prior to the earthquake, Haiti was extremely dependent on foreign aid and followed an internationally-supported development plan to reduce poverty.  Nevertheless, significant improvements were in progress, especially in job creation, but these advances were reversed by the earthquake. The resulting destruction returned the nation to a level of extreme fragility and reliance on foreign aid, including USD 560 million from the United States, USD 575 million from the European Union, and USD 470 million from a variety of private charities. 

The IMF claims that the Haitian economy has improved since the earthquake, reflecting the positive impact of aid in this case.  But the results are not nearly as tangible as one might hope.  Of the total USD 5.3 billion pledged by international donors, Haiti has only received a third of the stipulated pledges for reconstruction.[xiv] The situation is worsened by Haiti’s inability to fund reconstruction with its limited GDP per capita of USD 1,200.  Consequently, only 20% of the 15 million cubic yards of rubble have been cleared, and over a million people still live in temporary and overcrowded tent communities.[xv] Undoubtedly, recovery efforts are far from complete.  Thus, the question arises:  does sending thousands of Haitians back to their homeland, where reconstruction and improvements in economic and physical infrastructure are nearly nonexistent, all but ensure that Haiti will never recover?

It is true that the constant flux of immigration poses major challenges to the security of the D.R.  The inflow of Haitian immigrants has led to overcrowding and frequent clashes between the two cultures, bringing about fears of exceeding the local capacity and resources, especially in the neighborhoods of Santiago, the second largest city in the D.R.[xvi] Furthermore, the repatriation process is expensive for the government.  Dominican President Leonel Fernández has repeatedly responded to those who oppose the Haitian repatriations, observing, “As generous as [the] Dominican Republic wants to be, it cannot assume Haiti’s poverty, because it would fall to the same situation”.[xvii]

While the costs that burden the D.R. may be high, the costs for Haiti are much higher, both in terms of development and security.  Already one of the world’s fifty least developed countries, the exodus of Haitians threatens to destabilize the nation by undermining confidence in the government.  As a result, there exists an amplified urgency to escape, which could negate the effectiveness of reconstruction work completed by various international aid programs and agencies, such as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Immigration is a double-edged sword for both the D.R. and Haiti. Fears are mounting around the inability of the D.R. to support the thousands of earthquake refugees.  Dominican citizens accuse Haitian residents of taking their jobs and burdening the country’s already strained economy.  Yet, Haitians do positively contribute to the Dominican economy, which would struggle even more without the cheap labor provided by its neighbor.  Haiti, like the D.R., also faces a two-sided argument when it comes to immigration.  To many impoverished Haitians, the D.R. is viewed as a land of hope, with the opportunity for upward mobility and the accumulation of property and status.  However, the exploitation, discrimination, and fear of arbitrary violence, as well as forced repatriation back to a devastated country are extremely undesirable. These debates have existed for decades, but are still far from being resolved. 

New Developments

Despite the fact that the combat over immigration is far from being a new conflict on the island of Hispaniola, the increased frequency and desperation with which Haitians are crossing the border to the D.R. is reason for dire concern.  Brief investigations of the most recent controversies over Haitian immigrants, refugees, and displaced citizens have increased awareness of the true magnitude of the crisis that has developed.

The Dominican Republic

Repatriation as a solution to the Haitian immigration problem approaches being a human-created disaster in progress, one that can only be resolved by major changes.  Dominican President Fernández, who recently attended Haitian President Michel Martelly’s inauguration, has stressed the value in reactivating the Joint Bilateral Commission.  The Commission, which has been rather ineffective since the earthquake, covers “issues such as illegal immigration, the repatriation of undocumented immigrants, trade, drug trafficking and border security, but the focus will be on Haiti’s reconstruction.”[xviii] The immigration challenge may well revive the Joint Bilateral Commission in order to ease tensions and direct political focus to regulated immigration.  Government leaders must realize that the benefits of regulated immigration outweigh the potential social burden prompted by the issue.  In other words, the advantages of establishing border regulations, which include legitimizing the Dominican repatriations of undocumented Haitian immigrants, breaking the cycle of exploitation of Haitians, and allowing time for the Haitian government to rebuild, are more beneficial for both nations than a strategy solely of repatriation.  Although border regulations would not halt immigration completely, they would relieve some hostility.

The United States

On May 17, 2011, the U.S. government decided to extend temporary protection status to its 48,000 current Haitian earthquake refugees.  Temporary legal status also applies to Haitians who arrived up to a year after the earthquake, allowing them to stay in the U.S. until January 22, 2013.  This came at a crucial time: many Haitians feared they would be forced to return to their devastated homeland, but instead were given a temporary home.  Additionally, the protected status allows Haitian refugees to attain work permits.  With jobs, Haitians will be able to send remittances back home, creating hope that Haitians can help rebuild their country from afar while giving the Haitians at home the necessary time to prepare for the return of their citizens.  With the U.S. far more capable of absorbing these refugees than the D.R., this action ensures that the Haitian refugees are not forced to return to a country in shambles.


The presidential election of Michel Martelly on April 6, 2011 provides optimism that the urgent needs of Haitians will be met now that Haiti hopefully has a stable government.  His proposed improvements, which are essential to accommodate repatriated Haitians, will take many years, maybe even decades, to implement.  These plans include major infrastructure projects, which could create new jobs and teach new skills, and agricultural investments to create sustainable economic development.

Unfortunately, not all of Martelly’s planned improvements are likely to benefit those who are most in need.  On May 23, the U.S. Congress learned that Haiti’s police had destroyed three Port-au-Prince camps in Delmas that have held internally displaced citizens since the earthquake.  The evictions were scheduled as part of a campaign that, according to Wilson Jeudi, the mayor of the neighborhood, aimed to move internally displaced persons from public places, such as parks and squares.  However, with so much of the capital city still uninhabitable, the evictions have left hundreds of people without shelter and have not solved the problem of displacement by any means.  The evictions also appeared to contradict international law, which ensures protection for displaced persons.  Although Martelly had promised he would get his country’s displaced citizens out of the tent camps, keeping his promise in this manner will quickly end the hope that he had brought to Haiti’s citizens just weeks ago.  Thus, Martelly and the Haitian government face enormous pressure to clarify and rectify their goal.


Haiti’s post-earthquake conditions have created a critical predicament that extends beyond the question of where to house earthquake refugees.  Obvious differences in social and economic conditions between Haiti and the D.R. have inspired nearly one million Haitians to cross the border to the D.R. for over three decades.  For now, Haiti is not prepared for or capable of supporting the return of large waves of Haitians.  The nation is too unstable and lacks the most basic structures to reintegrate its needy population, comprised of internally displaced earthquake victims and unjustly deported Haitian descendents.  Meanwhile, Dominican officials continue to repatriate those of Haitian descent and the U.S. has only extended protected custody for a year and half to a handful of earthquake refugees.  Without any nation willing to accept these desperate people, displaced Haitians and Haitian immigrants confront an extremely uncertain future – a future in which they do not have a country to even temporarily call their own.

The references for this article can be found here.

Source: The First Post, United Kingdom