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Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the United States: Protect rights, reduce statelessness

Friday, January 19, 2007

WASHINGTON, USA (Reuters): Exploitative migrant labour agreements and years of unregulated migration have created a permanent underclass of people of Haitian descent in the Caribbean, including in the Dominican Republic.

One Dominican-Haitian named Sonia Pierre who has overcome this poverty to lead a human rights movement on behalf of stateless children, and who received the 2006 R.F. Kennedy Human Rights award, compellingly describes the situation.

There is a country in the Caribbean where children cannot go to school. These children do not have a right to healthcare. These children are in danger of being taken to Haiti [even though they and their parents were born in the Dominican Republic].

They are victims of discrimination because of the condition of being of Haitian descent. Many times these children then have a hate for their origins. One's identity, roots, and values are what make you a human being. This is not the internal problem of one state. We live in a global world. So we are talking about world citizens.

In the Dominican Republic there exists thousands and thousands of stateless people - most of them being children. An estimated two to three million individuals, 20-25 percent of people residing in the Dominican Republic, are not documented. Among them are up to one million individuals of Haitian origin.

Within that group, and of most concern, is the large number of Dominican-Haitian children born in the country who cannot access their human right to a nationality addressed in the country's constitution. In addition, asylum seekers who have fled politically motivated persecution in Haiti live in a state of limbo because their claims are not adjudicated in the Dominican Republic.

Their Dominican-born children also live without effective nationality. As a signatory to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, there is much the Dominican government can do.

"People see the Dominican Republic as a happy go lucky place with a few flaws. In reality, it is a country with deep rooted difficulty with human rights and an attitude that no one can tell us what to do," says Bridget Wooding, a development consultant.

The complex history and economic disparity of the two countries that share one island have resulted in decades of migration, which has at various times, including the present, been largely unregulated.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Haitians migrated to the Dominican Republic to work on the plantations and in the factories of the sugar industry. From the 1950s through the early 1980s the migration was legal, but there was also exploitation.

While the migration agreements were worked out bilaterally, the US also benefited. Migration agreements were hugely profitable for companies and governments.

Workers who had migrated under bilateral migrant worker agreements had children in the Dominican Republic over several generations, and these individuals have established themselves.

However, the Dominican government has failed to establish a legal framework compatible with international norms to address the nationality of the descendants. According to one US representative, " children are neither Haitian nor Dominican. They are stateless."

Descendants of Haitian migrants cannot access education beyond the fourth grade, have a bank account, own a car, get a driver's license or get a good job. "It is as if you don't exist," one Dominican-Haitian explained to Refugees International (RI) and Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service (LIRS) during a recent visit to the region.

The problem has not diminished in the two decades since the sugar industry has required less human effort. Other industries and services have taken advantage of this inexpensive and unregulated labor force. Women find work in the homes of Dominicans as domestics.

Men work and live, sometimes with their wives and children, on construction sites. Others have remained on the bateys or formerly functioning sugar plantations frustrated with lack of employment, education, and freedom of movement.

"We depend on Haitian labor," a Dominican Republic government official confirmed. "We don't hide the reality. The problem is not new, and we are looking for a solution."

Meanwhile, the Dominican government continues to enjoy the short-term benefits of low-wage, undocumented workers and has not meaningfully pursued the long-term benefits of regulating migration.

The impact of governmental failure to establish a fair, humane immigration system was described by one elderly man who has been living and formerly working on a Dominican Republic batey for 35 years, yet cannot have an identity document or claim a pension. He has five children and numerous grand-children, none of whom are documented.

"I cannot approach the municipal government or the consulate to solve my problem. Living without documents is like living as a pig in the mud," the man lamented.

In theory, the Dominican constitution grants citizenship to everyone born on its territory, but the Dominican Supreme Court has ruled that Dominican-born Haitians are ineligible for citizenship because they are "in transit," despite the fact that many of them, their parents and grandparents have lived and worked in the country for decades.

According to one Haitian government official, these children could theoretically be registered at the Haitian embassy in the Dominican Republic, but according to individuals who have tried this, they get turned away for various reasons, including not having proper documents or witnesses. When they try to get required documents from local hospitals where their children were born, they are also unsuccessful.

In October 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights based in Costa Rica, issued a landmark judgment, Yean and Bosico, which found that the Dominican Republic had denied citizenship on the basis of race, thereby rendering children of Haitian descent effectively stateless.

The court gave the government until mid October 2006 to apologize, pay damages to the two children involved, publish the ruling, and implement measures to ensure equal access to birth certificates and school enrollment. The government has done nothing to comply and stated it is bound by the Supreme Court judgment that Haitians are in transit.

Currently, there is a debate about changing the Dominican constitution so that nationality would be conferred based on the determination of having Dominican blood and not by virtue of being born on Dominican soil. If this change goes forward, thousands of individuals will be made stateless.

The Central Electoral Board issues birth certificates and identity documents to Dominicans, but it widely reported to deny the right to Dominican birth certificates to children born of parents believed to be Haitian. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are particularly concerned about a developing trend.

"Young people try to get identity documents, especially as they prepare to enter the university, but are surprised to find they have no birth record. Sometimes they take the birth certificate and keep it," one agency reported. "We are aware of 25 cases of annulments of birth certificates."

There also continues to be serious concern about large-scale deportations of Haitian migrants. Tens of thousands of individuals are deported from the Dominican Republic to Haiti each year. Expulsions are not carried out according to agreed methods.

In the process, families are separated and individuals, including children, remain without a nationality years after the deportation. LIRS and RI visited a community of deportees who had been living near the border for 15 years. Their biggest concerns include malnutrition and inability to integrate back into their former communities.

While recognizing the World Bank's good intentions, some NGOs are concerned about a project under consideration to help the Dominican government issues birth certificates and identity documents to children and adults.

NGO workers told RI and LIRS that they expressed their concern to the World Bank that this program would discriminate against Dominicans of Haitian descent.

The situation in Haiti continues to cause people to leave the country for a better life elsewhere, but many of them continue to face violations of their human rights in the places where they seek protection or where their children are born and have a right to a nationality.

Common needs of countries in the region to document citizens, combat human trafficking, and meet labor needs would be best addressed in the context of meeting their international human rights obligations, a method known to prevent refugee flows. With the support of the international community, the Dominican Republic and Haiti need to develop policies which ensure that the rights of stateless persons and their children are upheld.

Refugees International recommends that:

The Dominican Republic and Haiti develop and carry out non-discriminatory policies, including ones on documentation and migration that prevent and reduce statelessness, with a focus on combating corruption.

The Dominican Republic immediately and fully complies with the 2005 Inter-American court decision.

The Dominican Republic signed the 1954 Convention relating to the status of stateless persons. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency with a mandate on behalf of stateless persons, establishes an active presence in the Dominican Republic.

The United States invest and participate in a rights-based regional response to migration in the Caribbean that inclusively responds to the plight of stateless persons.

Senior Advocate for Stateless Initiatives Maureen Lynch conducted an assessment of the situation for Haitians in the Dominican Republic in November.


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