Haitians crossing into Dominican Republic seeking jobs are finding abuse instead
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
NEIBA, Dominican Republic -- The government of President Hipólito Mejía is coming under attack from human rights groups for abuse and discrimination in pursuing and summarily deporting Haitians and those of Haitian descent to neighboring Haiti.
Haitians ``are constantly humiliated, scorned and exploited,''
said the Rev. Pedro Ruquoy, a leader of a three-year-old advocacy group
Neiba called Plataforma Vida (Platform for Life).
Among the complaints expressed by Haitians and Dominico-Haitians
-- those born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian descent -- are
meager pay, poor living conditions, racism and lack of access to healthcare and education. But the roundups and forced repatriation
have caused the most outrage.
The Dominican government defends its right to oust what it considers
illegal entrants -- even if they include those born in the Dominican
Republic. That's because provisions in the constitution provide for denial of citizenship to children if the parents are foreigners ``in
That rule applies, no matter how long the term of residency.
``Children born to foreigners in transit are not Dominican,'' said Luis González Fabra, a spokesman for President Mejía.
``The roundups that occur here are the same as those that happen
on the border of the United States with Mexico,'' he said. ``The
roundups are done and will continue to be done against illegal immigrants. But the politics of this administration is to respect the human
rights of those illegals.''
The Dominican Republic has long relied on Haitian labor to harvest
the sweet rods of cane that have turned sugar into one of its most
important agricultural products.
But Haitians are becoming targets as more attempt to abandon their traditional work on sugar plantations to seek other jobs outside of the secluded fields, human rights advocates say.
``It seems that Haitians are deported when they go into towns,'' said Joanne Mariner, deputy director of the Americas Program for Human Rights Watch, the group that is raising the issue. ``That would suggest that Haitians are tolerated when they work in the sugar plantations but not when they are competing with Dominicans for jobs.''
Preliminary results of a Human Rights Watch study now underway will be included in a report that will be issued at the World Conference on Race next month in South Africa. The full report will be released later this year.
An estimated 500,000 Haitians live and work in the Dominican Republic. About an equal number are Dominico-Haitians.
The majority can be found in village-like settlements comprised of mud huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors tucked beyond the fields of sugar cane, where paved streets turn into dirt roads.
These 400 or so hidden encampments -- with populations that vary from 300 to 4,000 -- are known as bateyes.
``Leaving the bateyes continues to be a big risk,'' Ruquoy said.
According to a report released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of State, the Dominican government repatriated between 12,500 and 36,362 Haitians last year.
David Perez, a third-generation Dominico-Haitian, is among the statistics.
He has been deported twice, most recently earlier this year after he left his home in Bateye 7 near Neiba for a construction job in Santo Domingo, the capital. As he and two friends walked along the road after a day of work, they were stopped by an immigration officer.
``He asked me if I was Haitian and I said no but they took me anyway,'' said Perez, 21. ``I was lost over there [in Haiti]. It was scary.''
Perez's father Miguel Perez spent hundreds of dollars to track down his son, who spent two months in Haiti, where he took a job cutting wood.
``It's not right, the way they treat us,'' the elder Perez said. ``We're Dominicans.''
The Perezes aren't alone in this predicament.
Proving legal residency or citizenship is difficult for most Dominico-Haitians
because they are descendants of immigrants who entered the country illegally.
documents to prove citizenship, little can be done to halt the deportations.
The illegal migration cycle begins with deception, according to human rights advocates.
Recruiters or buscones go into Haiti and make rags-to-riches promises.
Plenty of desperate Haitians take the risk.
A survey done last year by Plataforma Vida showed that about 30,000 of the bateye residents in the Barahona region had entered the country illegally over a six-month period, from January to June.
By the time many Haitians have settled into jobs, they're stuck in a life of indentured servitude. The meager pay, less than $50 a month, provides them with the household staples necessary for survival, but not enough to prosper.
LIFE IN HOMELAND
But life in their homeland is just as bad or worse. The average annual per capita income in Haiti is less than $500, compared to about $1,600 in the Dominican Republic.
As a result, many stay, raise families and maintain a precarious existence amid what many view as ``anti-Haitian sentiment.'' That places them at constant risk of being kicked out of what many consider their newfound home, advocates say.
Human rights activists said the roundups increased after President Mejía, elected last year, declared that the Dominican Republic ``was experiencing a peaceful invasion of Haitians.''
``I don't know if that statement created more deportations or justified the repatriations,'' Ruquoy said.
Government officials acknowledge that the roundups occur, but dispute that it is a human rights violation or an act based on racism.
``There is a peaceful invasion occurring here. That statement has nothing to do with racist sentiments. It's a fact,'' González Fabra said.
Lack of proof of citizenship, advocates contend, also has been used to deny Dominico-Haitians an education and access to health care. How to address those concerns has been part of the recent political debate.
Government officials said birth certificates are not needed to receive an education or healthcare. They deny that Haitians and Dominico-Haitians enrolled in schools or admitted into hospitals go unattended.
However, officials say, the Dominican Republic can't continue to face the problem of illegal Haitian migration alone.
``This is a problem that should belong to everyone, not just to the Dominican Republic,'' González Fabra said.
Mejía has initiated discussions with the Haitian government to improve their relationship and has also turned to the international arena for help.
One proposal is for aid from the United States, France and Venezuela
to be placed in a combined fund that would be used for economic development
Haitian-Dominican Republic border.
``We need to improve the economy in Haiti so that they won't need to come here anymore,'' González Fabra said.
As the government sorts out how to deal with the growing Haitian population, those of Haitian descent struggle to make ends meet.
``The hard work we do gets us nothing,'' said Alberto Duval, who was born in Batey 7. ``When you get strength, you can earn a little more money. But when you get weak, you earn nothing. To get strength, you have to have food. To have food, you have to have money.
``God created life, but to live, you need money and what you get here is barely enough to live,'' he said.