BOGOTA, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent are crossing into Haiti each day from the Dominican Republic, fearing possible deportation, and Haiti’s prime minister said the influx was causing a humanitarian crisis.
The surge in border crossings follows implementation last week of a new Dominican immigration law which requires undocumented individuals to register for residency under a “regularisation” programme.
Those unable to register and who do not have identity documents can be deported, Dominican officials have said.
While the Dominican government says there will be no mass deportations, undocumented migrants are taking no chances.
Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul said Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, was struggling to cope with the influx.
“With the deportation of migrants from the Dominican Republic, we are in a climate of a humanitarian crisis,” he wrote on his Twitter account on Thursday.
In the past week, around 12,000 Haitian migrants have streamed across the border into Haiti in packed buses and on foot, carrying bags of belongings on their heads and pushing wheelbarrows stacked with furniture and mattresses.
They said they feared forcible deportation and harassment by Dominican authorities if they stayed.
“It’s not that I want to return but I’m being bothered a lot. They (authorities) want to send us home (to Haiti). I don’t want them to hit me or my son so I’ve come on my own accord,” Haitian Chadely Jean told Reuters TV earlier this week as she crossed the border on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have crossed into the wealthier Dominican Republic over the years to escape political violence and seek a better life, and to seek refuge after a 2010 earthquake destroyed the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.
NEW NATIONALITY LAWS
But changes to nationality laws and a 2013 constitutional court ruling have stripped children of Haitian migrants born in the Dominican Republic of their Dominican nationality, rights groups say.
This means they have no identity documents and are stateless.
“With a stateless population in the Dominican Republic estimated at more than 200,000 people, the consequences of expulsion could be devastating,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva earlier this month.
He urged the Dominican Republic not to deport stateless Dominicans to avoid creating a “new refugee situation.”
The Dominican government has said changes to its nationality laws are aimed at tackling decades of illegal migration from Haiti and are not aimed at removing people’s citizenship.
Buses are being provided for Haitians wanting to return to Haiti voluntarily and four “Welcome Centers” are being set up to receive undocumented people, the government said.
Dominican authorities say they will properly screen people who face deportation and respect their human rights.
“When we have to take measures against people who have to be repatriated (to their home country), we will do it with complete respect to human rights, while respecting the dignity of those persons,” Deputy Interior Minister Luis Fernandez told Reuters TV earlier this week.
But human rights groups fear otherwise.
“The Dominican Republic has a history of indiscriminate massive deportations of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Deportations take place without due process. We’ve seen cases where a military officer says: You look Haitian, therefore come with me,” said Wade McMullen, a lawyer at the U.S.-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
“We’re going to see migration officials going after undocumented migrants, and it’s very difficult for your average migration official to distinguish between undocumented migrants and stateless people,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
He said the crackdown was rooted in longstanding racism and xenophobia in the Dominican Republic towards darker-skinned Haitians.
“There’s a lot of scaremongering against Haitians and those of Haitian decent who are seen as a threat to Dominican identity,” McMullen said.
The Dominican government denies such assertions and says Dominican-born Haitians go to school and receive healthcare in the country.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says it fears up to 20,000 people could be deported from the Dominican Republic over the next five weeks.
“Haiti is in no position to receive the deportees in a country where jobs and basic services are so scarce. It will rock the country,” IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
“Haiti doesn’t have the infrastructure and capacity to employ thousands of migrants, some of whom have never even been to Haiti before,” he said.
There is only one reception centre in Haiti for deportees, and it is being used by customs officers as a dormitory, he added.
Haitian Michel Louis, who left the Dominican Republic for Haiti earlier this week, is gloomy about his future. “There is no water to drink, no food, life is very difficult for us here,” he told Reuters TV.