Two nations share an island in the Caribbean. One is Haiti, which has suffered earthquakes, been recently exposed to cholera, and dealt with relentless ignorance about its culture and people. It has often been portrayed as a place of dire poverty and associated with a distorted, sinister version of the vodou religion. (Ironically, the country has a proud history – it was the site of the great slave uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the independent state of Haiti was born from the ashes of French colony Saint-Domingue. It was the world’s first black republic.) It suffers, though, as always, life and love goes on between the cracks.
Its neighbour is the Dominican Republic, where many Westerners fly in to stay in its gleaming concrete multitude of all-inclusive hotels and resorts. The Dominican Republic tends to have a more Hispanic population, and Haiti a more African one, but they share an island, so unsurprisingly there has been flow in both directions.
In particular, many Haitians historically, over the years, made a home in the Dominican Republic, settling and giving birth to their children there. These children have now grown up. Life has not always been easy, as anti-black racism is fairly common in the Dominican Republic, but it was last year that the bombshell dropped. In September 2013, the Dominican Republic’s constitutional court passed a judgment revoking the citizenship of Dominicans of Haitian parentage born after 1929. People who had known no other home were suddenly stripped of their rights and made officially stateless.
The ruling is in clear breach of international law – but nonetheless has affected tens of thousands of people for over a year now. The authorities claim that it was an error to accord citizenship to these people in the past, and that the move is merely to correct this fact. A few weeks ago, the Dominican Government announced that the country was leaving the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has been critical in the past of its treatment of Haitians.
What does this mean in practice? Those rendered stateless cannot access education or healthcare, cannot vote, cannot inherit, cannot marry, cannot own property and cannot work, at least legally. Their children are, in turn, born stateless. They cannot live, hardly.
Eve Hayes de Kalaf, a PhD candidate specialising in the issue at Aberdeen University’s Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and the Rule of Law, says: “Many Dominicans of Haitian descent are finding it impossible to access even the most basic of services such as health and education. They can’t send their children to school as they are unable to register them as Dominican citizens. They can’t work, vote or live a respectable and dignified existence. They are trapped in legal limbo, a form of ‘social suicide’ that is keeping them as second-class non-citizens. On a day-to-day basis even the most basic of tasks become insurmountable hurdles.
“Imagine having a nationality and being told one day that it no longer belongs to you? That you had been mistaken in believing that you belong to the country you were born and grew up in?”
The Dominican Government has done whatever it can to obfuscate the issue, she adds. “We are talking about citizens who – according to the Dominican constitution – had a birthright claim to Dominican nationality and who grew up in the country. Most of the people affected self-identify as Dominicans, speak Spanish as their mother tongue, have deep economic and social ties to the Dominican Republic and have never been to Haiti. This minority group has already fallen through the cracks of bureaucracy and some of the administrative barriers they are facing are mind-blowing.”
“Remember that the Constitutional Court ruling has been implemented retroactively, dating back to 1929. That means that many Dominicans who had sat comfortably within their own citizenship for generations are now unable to function and are essentially living a form of ‘civic death’ in the country.”
Yet Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, who make up some 12% of the population, have often been said to be the drivers of the Dominican economy, providing cheap labour in droves. The Dominican Republic’s GDP in 2013 was almost eight times Haiti’s. The economic growth that the Dominican Republic has enjoyed has been built on the back of what was already an underclass. A poor, often black underclass denied most of the rights of lighter-skinned citizens. Toiling on building sites or on farms with little bargaining power or recognition. Sound familiar? South Africa?
Can we call this apartheid? Of course we can. The dictionary definition: “a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race”. What’s more, Haitians of African heritage are generally where they are in the Caribbean because of slavery – in fact, ‘Hispaniola’ was the first place in the Western hemisphere where Africans arrived. The ancestors of Haitian Dominicans were taken forcefully from their lands in Africa, transported halfway across the world, and now their descendants have their legal rights and citizenship stripped from them.
Yet the international press is quiet on this story. A few human rights organisations, such as Haiti Support Group and Amnesty International, have raised the issue and even campaigned on it, but for the most part, the big charities have remained silent. Without a great deal of international pressure (Dominican Republic’s foreign policy towards Haiti has often seemed friendly, while at the same time its domestic policy towards incomers has been harsh and oppressive), there is little incentive for change. But the recent decision to leave the Inter-American Court on Human Rights does seem to be a game changer.
Chiara Liguori, Caribbean researcher at Amnesty International, explains: “Deprived of the Dominican nationality and with no easy access to the Haitian one, Dominicans of Haitian descent are condemned to live at the margins of the Dominican society… The withdrawal would represent a major step backwards for the protection of human rights in the Dominican Republic. Victims of discrimination, police killings, gender-based violence and other human rights violations will have no legal avenue to claim justice when they find no remedy at home.”
Adds Eve Hayes de Kalaf: “The Dominican Republic’s intention to withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights should set alarm bells ringing so that the international community finally sits up and takes action.
“The descendants of Haitian migrants have contributed to the building and economic prosperity of the Dominican Republic for decades. Their backbreaking, arduous, badly paid and often undocumented labour built the luxury hotels and all-inclusive resorts in a country that now profits handsomely from the largest number of tourists a year in the Caribbean. I would imagine that while sipping on rum cocktails and lying in the hot sun, most remain blissfully aware of the atrocious human rights abuses being committed throughout the Dominican Republic at this moment in time.
“Perhaps some of these tourists might take the decision to vacation elsewhere until the state assumes responsibility and restores nationality to its citizens.”
Find out more:
Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness
Global Action Plan to End Statelessness
Join in UNHCR’s #IBelong social media campaign on statelessness
Sign UNHCR’s #IBelong open letter
National Sovereignty Vs Human Rights? (HuffPost)