Beyond the Bateyes: Haitian Immigrants in the Dominican Republic
The September 1991 coup d'état against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide drove more than 100,000 Haitians into exile. The refugee Diaspora reached across the Caribbean -- from the neighboring Dominican Republic to The Bahamas, French Guyana, Curaçao, Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, Honduras and, most prominently, the United States camps at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Aristide's return in November 1994 and the subsequent re-establishment of democratic institutions in Haiti prompted a number of Caribbean states to initiate programs for the repatriation of the Haitian populations within their borders. The United States returned 20,000 from Guantánamo between September 1994 and January 1995; The Bahamas repatriated approximately 8,000 Haitians from February to December 1995; smaller numbers have been deported from other island states. Repatriated Haitians have returned to find a government unable to provide the resources or administrative structure for resettlement and an economy which has yet to revive enough to offer employment opportunities. A massive refugee repatriation in the near future would place great stress on Haiti's still-fragile democratic institutions.
Hoping to avoid that outcome, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR) has initiated a project aimed at bringing about a region-wide dialogue on Caribbean refugee and immigration issues. Its goal is the development of policies supporting a comprehensive regional response to migration issues, including, most immediately, the regularization of the status or repatriation of Haitian migrant populations in accord with international legal norms. The first phase of this project is an investigation of the status of the Haitian immigrant communities in the Caribbean. NCHR began with an analysis of the Dominican Republic, Haiti's only contiguous neighbor, which contains a large and extremely vulnerable Haitian population.
The discrimination, exploitation and abuse endured by Haitian residents of the Dominican Republic are the products of historical antagonisms and political and economic forces. A series of conflicts, originating in the independence wars of the nineteenth century and culminating in the massacre of thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in the twentieth, generated tensions which still characterize relations between the two states. In the current century, Rafael Trujillo and his political descendants transformed the old colonial antagonisms into a virulent anti-Haitian racism for political purposes, a racism that now permeates much of Dominican society.
Since the 1980's, these tensions have principally focused on the use of Haitian labor in the Dominican sugar cane industry. The seasonal migration of low-wage Haitian cane cutters, which began at the turn of the century, gradually left a large permanent population of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian origin in Dominican agricultural zones and major cities. That population has grown to an estimated 500,000 residents today.
The use of forced Haitian labor on state-owned sugar cane plantations was the focus of four reports issued by NCHR between 1989 and 1992. Those investigations described how Haitians were deceptively recruited in Haiti, turned over to the Dominican military at the border and transported to sugar plantations throughout the Dominican Republic, where they were forced to work and live under appalling conditions for the duration of the cane harvest. The 1989 and 1990 reports generated a storm of international publicity and denunciations which led to the promise of reforms. Although Dominican President Joaquín Balaguer issued a decree in 1990 ordering changes, they were never fully implemented.
Three months prior to the 1991 military coup which drove Aristide from Port-au-Prince, President Balaguer responded to the international criticism of Dominican treatment of Haitians in the sugar industry by ordering a massive deportation of Haitian cane cutters. In the ensuing chaos, an estimated 50,000 men, women and children flooded across the border. The deportations ended with the coup but, as our 1992 report noted, the use of coercion in the sugar industry continued and working and living conditions in the cane fields remained abysmal.
Focused on events in Haiti, we did not revisit the Dominican Republic in 1993 or 1994. Concerns about Dominican immigration policy resurfaced in the summer of 1995 when NCHR received several reports indicating that the level of forced repatriations of Haitians had significantly increased.
In response to this situation, NCHR sent a mission to the Dominican Republic in October 1995 to gather information on the status of Haitian residents and Dominican citizens of Haitian descent. The mandate of the mission extended beyond the bateyes (the shantytowns in the sugar cane fields where the cane cutters and their families live) to the Haitian populations working in other agricultural areas, construction and tourism, and living in the towns and cities.
Haitian Labor in the Dominican Economy
Regardless of the racism, Haitian migrants form the basis of important formal and informal economic networks. Most obvious is the cheap labor Haitians provide to the crisis-ridden sugar cane industry, the agricultural sector as a whole, the construction industry and in other lines of work where inexpensive manual labor is a critical production factor. Under constant threat of deportation, these workers have no leverage to bargain for better pay or working conditions and must accept the feudal control imposed by employers. Thus, uncertain legal status is a mechanism for guaranteeing the availability of an easily controlled low-wage labor force for industries that might not remain competitive in domestic and global markets if labor costs and benefits were forced to rise. And, of course, the largest beneficiary of this state of affairs is the government itself, which must bear the huge costs of the inefficient state owned sugar mills (run by the State Sugar Council (CEA) and pay for road construction and other public works.
Informal economic networks are just as crucial to the maintenance of the status quo. The army and national police, in particular, benefit from the illegal "trade" in Haitian workers. A bus carrying Haitians from Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo, for instance, must pay an "entrance fee" at the border to Dominican army officers in order to permit visa-less Haitians to enter. Additional "fees" must be paid to security officials at every one of the dozen-to-two-dozen army or national police checkpoints on the highway to Santo Domingo. Haitians who are stopped randomly by national police or the military often must pay a fee in lieu of deportation. And Haitians who are caught in round-ups -- or removed from construction sites en masse -- are usually stripped by soldiers of any cash or belongings they might be carrying. Finally, soldiers are paid by CEA and private farmers and owners of other businesses which employ Haitians to collect and deport groups of workers. These revenues, we were told by a senior military official, are significant to large numbers of poorly-paid national police and soldiers.
Haitian immigrants, therefore, find themselves in a situation both paradoxical and ironic. The paradox lies in the abuse and discrimination received from individuals and groups in the economic sectors that could not survive without their labor. The irony is generated by the fact that as much as many Dominicans profess to "fear" the "Haitianization" of Dominican society and culture, a Gallup poll reveals the contrary -- in the traditional immigration pattern, Haitians become "Dominicanized," adopting the language, religion and customs of the Dominican Republic.
Immigration Status and Human Rights Abuses
The mission concluded that Haitians are vulnerable to exploitation in and arbitrary deportation from the Dominican Republic because the Dominican government refuses to undertake any serious program to normalize their immigration status and grant them the full legal protections to which they would be entitled under Dominican law. The mission's findings address the results of this policy:
(1) Despite repeated promises over five years, the Dominican government has done little to curb the abuses of sugar cane cutters. Working conditions remain onerous and dangerous, freedom of movement is strictly controlled, effective pay is far below an already-miserly minimum wage, labor contracts are rarely used and effectively unenforceable, CEA cheating in weighing and paying continues, union organizing is repressed and military units and armed guardacampestres control the sugar plantations as if they were prisons, and the cane cutters, prisoners. Efforts by the Secretary of Labor to improve conditions -- primarily through the use of 25 inspectors to supervise 16 sugar mills and 400 bateyes -- have proved woefully inadequate. Some abusive CEA employees, guardacampestres and police have been disciplined, but usually only in cases which have attracted extensive press coverage. Health and social services for cane workers and families remain largely inaccessible.
(2) Conditions in the bateyes remain terrible. The most fortunate have electricity and well-water, but housing and sanitation facilities (if they are available at all) are poor. The CEA claims it has no funds for adequate repairs or new facilities investments, so any improvements made usually result from the work of NGOs or unions.
(3) The immigration status of most Haitians is precarious. Some cane cutters were issued temporary worker immigration cards, renewable annually, but most workers we spoke with possessed only CEA identification or no proof of immigration status at all. The same CEA and private farmers who have treated Haitian workers harshly in the past are responsible for regularizing the status of these same workers now, with little government oversight and no effective penalties for not doing so.
Haitians who give birth to children in the Dominican Republic often face enormous hurdles in registering their offspring as Dominican citizens and thus permitting them to attend public schools and claim all the political and social rights of Dominican nationals. Long-standing Dominicans of Haitian descent also face serious discrimination when seeking to vote or obtain the social, health and educational services to which they are entitled under Dominican law.
Finally, the Dominican government refuses to recognize any obligation toward the large segment of the Haitian immigrant population which has lived and worked in the Dominican Republic for many years but has never received official immigration status. The Dominican Republic's responsibility for this population derives from its having welcomed -- and often coerced or induced through deception -- the arrival of these immigrants, who carry out work in critical Dominican industries which Dominican nationals refuse to perform. Moreover, the Dominican government itself has been the major employer of these viejos through its ownership of the CEA sugar mills and its role in the construction industry (which depends upon government public works contracts).
Immigration reform measures currently under discussion by the Dominican government would change the basis of Dominican nationality in order to deny citizenship to the children of Haitian immigrants born in the Dominican Republic. The reform measures, as currently drafted, fail to address actual migration patterns and practices in Dominican agriculture and completely ignore the long-time undocumented Haitian residents.
(4) Forced repatriations continue as official government practice. The military continues to conduct arbitrary round-ups and assists agricultural and construction employers to deport Haitian workers for economic reasons. Haitian "appearance" is usually the only requirement for deportation. Proper visas, Dominican cédulas, passports or CEA documents usually do not prevent repatriation -- the documents are normally taken and destroyed to prevent the individuals from returning. The massive repatriation decree of 1991 is still Dominican law.
The estimated 500,000 Haitians and Dominican-Haitians in the Dominican Republic pose more than just a set of formidable domestic problems for the Dominican government. Existing in a nebulous legal state under Dominican and international law, subject to deportation without notice, they also constitute a veritable sword of Damocles for Haiti. Years of dictatorship and military repression caused tens of thousands of Haitians to flee to the United States, Canada and other Caribbean states; the largest refugee population, however, remains that of the Dominican Republic. And although Haiti has established an office to assist with the return of refugees, the resources the government can offer to its expatriates have been meager. In its current fragile economic state, Haiti would have great difficulty dealing with massive deportations from its neighbor on the scale of the 1991 expulsions. But until the status of the Haitian population in the Dominican Republic is officially determined and respected by the Dominican government, the threat will remain. And, as Balaguer demonstrated in 1991, the Dominican government has been willing to use its Haitian population to influence Haitian politics.
The mission found no evidence of an official government policy to resume systematic deportations of Haitian residents. Although President Balaguer's 1991 expulsion decree remains in force, the rash of repatriations in 1995 reflected a return to a long-standing pre-coup pattern of expulsions related to the economic and political exploitation of undocumented Haitian workers. This exploitation takes place in an atmosphere of often-intense anti-Haitian rhetoric abetted by major political figures, the military and the police. Historically, its animus has been most evident in the treatment of sugar cane cutters; today, it extends to Haitians (and Dominicans of Haitian descent) working in all areas of Dominican economic life.
Five years of recommendations to the Dominican, United States and Haitian governments have been largely ignored. The measures in fact undertaken -- the United States Trade Representative's investigation in 1990-91, the Dominican government's adoption of various decrees -- were curtailed for political reasons or, in the case of the Dominican government, never fully carried out. While this report details serious and widespread abuses attributable to the Dominican government, its purpose is to go beyond a presentation of the human rights problems faced by Haitians in the Dominican Republic. NCHR hopes that its findings and recommendations will serve as a background for discussions among Dominicans, Haitians, other Caribbean states with Haitian populations, and regional and international governmental and non-governmental organizations aimed at developing bilateral and multilateral responses to the interrelated migration and human rights issues outlined in this document.
NCHR's recommendations include an assertive role for Haitian diplomacy in negotiating migrant labor and immigration accords with its neighbor. We also suggest, however, a role for the United States, the European Community, the OAS, United Nations organs, particularly the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the development and implementation of Haitian-Dominican and regional accords addressing Caribbean migration issues.
1. Initiate domestic reforms. For the fifth time in seven years, NCHR requests the Dominican government to honor its obligations to its Haitian residents and citizens of Haitian descent contained in Dominican domestic law and the international human rights instruments to which it is a party -- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and numerous ILO conventions.
In light of these specific obligations, we once again urge the Dominican government to take immediate steps to ameliorate the exploitation and abuse of its Haitian residents and Dominican citizens of Haitian descent. The Dominican Republic should:
2. Seek bilateral solutions. Previous efforts to pressure the Dominican government to treat its Haitian and Dominican-Haitian populations in accord with Dominican and international law have largely failed. The hope that the Dominican government may become more sensitive to these issues now rests with the generational political change implicated by the May 1996 presidential elections. However, since most of the actors involved in the presidential race have been involved in Dominican politics for some time and have offered no alternative approaches to Haiti and the Haitian population inside the Dominican Republic, we have no reason to believe that reasserting the same arguments will necessarily produce greater success after President Balaguer has retired.
NCHR now insists that a broader approach is necessary. While emphasizing that the Dominican Republic remains obligated to meet its international human rights obligations independent of exogenous considerations, NCHR believes that durable solutions must involve Haiti and neighboring Caribbean states. The human rights violations we have outlined in this report are intertwined with migration and development issues that affect the Caribbean as a region. Addressing these issues requires the active participation of the major economic and political actors in the region, the United States and the European Community, and international and regional organizations concerned with development and migration issues.
In our view, the first steps in improving the lot of Haitians in the Dominican Republic must take place at a bilateral level between the governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The two states share important interests in trade, joint economic development projects (particularly in the border regions), tourism and democracy. These issues also directly affect migration flows on the island. The demand and supply of seasonal labor for Dominican agricultural industries should be regulated by a bilateral accord that incorporates enforceable worker protections. As a precondition to any labor accord, the Dominican Republic must agree to definitively resolve the legal immigration status of long-term Haitian residents and address the discrimination faced by its citizens of Haitian descent.
As this report goes to press, the two republics have given encouraging indications of an interest in initiating bilateral discussions on at least some of these issues. Haitian President René Préval's inauguration in February 1996 initiated a series of bilateral cultural, business and political contacts culminating in Préval's official state visit to Santo Domingo in mid-March. The foreign ministers of each state signed a joint communiqué establishing a bilateral commission to discuss trade and economic development issues. And in April the Dominican government ordered the arrest and deportation of Michel François and Frank Romain, two of the more notorious supporters of the coup against Aristide.
While the bilateral contacts and apparent gestures of goodwill at the outset of the Préval presidency signal the potential for a new relationship between the neighboring states, NCHR reiterates the need for a broad, well-prepared set of interconnected discussions on economic development, trade, migration and human rights. The joint communiqué, for example, referred to economic development and trade interests but was silent on migrant labor, migration, human rights and democracy. And while Presidents Préval and Balaguer are to be commended for opening Préval's term on a warm note, substantive policy decisions will have to await the new Dominican president elected in May.
3. Seek regional assistance. Given the antagonistic history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the long-standing absence of political will on the part of the two states necessary to forge workable bilateral agreements, and the regional nature of the economic and political causes of migration patterns in the Caribbean, NCHR believes that both states should seek the assistance of other nations and regional and international organizations.
The United States, Canada, the European Union, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of American States, CARICOM, UNHCR, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) all play extensive roles in the Caribbean and most are directly involved in, or affected by, Caribbean migration issues. More importantly, the decisions of a number of these actors, particularly those of the United States, affecting any one Caribbean state tend to have ripple effects which can significantly influence the rest. This is particularly true when market-oriented macroeconomic restructuring and economic development initiatives insisted upon by the United States, the international financial institutions and the U.S. Agency for International Development inevitably promote, at least in the short run, an increase in rural poverty that exacerbates economic migration problems.
The United States and the European Community can bring economic pressure to bear on Haiti and the Dominican Republic to negotiate immigration and migrant worker agreements under the auspices of a neutral third party, such as the OAS, and have the resources to help finance (or encourage financing from international financial institutions) migration, economic development and resettlement programs. Third parties such as UNHCR, the ILO or IOM could take on monitoring and enforcement functions, perhaps reporting to a bilateral or multi-lateral commission.
Unless longer-range regional solutions are forthcoming, the migration emergencies which generate and sometimes exacerbate existing human rights problems will continue. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted more than 1,100 Haitian "boat people" bound for the United States in November 1995, a surge that corresponded to continuing economic difficulties and a rise in political uncertainty and violence prior to the December Haitian presidential elections. It is important to note, however, that these sudden migrations do not emanate solely from Haiti. The Dominican Republic itself exhibits similar migration patterns, with Dominican economic migrants moving from the countryside to Dominican cities and then on to Puerto Rico and the United States. While the U.S. Coast Guard rescue operations in 1995 picked up a total of 1,969 Haitians sailing for Miami, 4,500 Dominicans were apprehended attempting to reach Puerto Rico across the Mona Passage in the same period.
The United States and the European Union. The United States remains the largest foreign market for both Haiti and the Dominican Republic and can use sugar quotas, tariffs established under the General System of Preferences and the Caribbean Basin Initiative, and economic development and military aid to pressure the Dominican Republic to improve its human rights record.
The Dominican Republic's sugar allotments of 226,000 short tons for 1992-93, 191,000 for 1993-94 and 241,851 for 1994-95 remained the highest allotment of any sugar-producing state, 17% of the total United States sugar quota. In 1991, the United States government failed to take full advantage of its considerable leverage as the Dominican Republic's largest trading partner to pressure the Dominican government to improve its human rights practices. On April 25, 1991, after a two-year review of Dominican labor practices, the United States Trade Representative determined that the Dominican government had "taken or [is] taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights," even though the CEA continued to use forced labor, as documented by NCHR and others. As a result, the Administration continued extending trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, despite a U.S. law that prohibits the granting of such benefits to countries that violate labor rights, and refused to accept an America's Watch petition for an ongoing review.
Since September 1991, United States diplomatic efforts in the Dominican Republic focused on the Dominican government's (reluctant) role in the measures taken by the United Nations and the OAS to restore Aristide to the Haitian presidency. Neither the Clinton Administration nor the U.S. Congress has returned to consider the Dominican government's treatment of its Haitian residents.
This lack of attention is unfortunate given that the U.S. now has additional leverage through the Caribbean Basin Initiative's textile preferences granted to Caribbean states during the Reagan Administration. The Dominican Republic has developed a number of free trade zones from which international textile corporations can export products to the United States at favorable tariff rates. The Dominican government claims that 200,000 jobs have been generated by the textile companies, jobs now threatened by even-more-favorable access granted to Mexico pursuant to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Mexican tariff advantage has increased with the huge drop in the value of the Mexican peso since early 1995. The Dominican government has formally requested the Clinton Administration and the Congress to grant it parity with Mexico in order to preserve its textile export industry. In September, the Ways and Means Committee of the U. S. House of Representatives dropped the NAFTA parity bill from the 1996 budget for reasons having nothing to do with human rights concerns. The issue appears to be stalled until after the United States presidential election in 1996.
The European Union (EU) is now the destination of almost a quarter of all Dominican exports. The EU markets promise to expand once the Dominican Republic and Haiti fully gain access to the preferential trade terms and development funds offered through the Lomé Convention. The Dominican Republic has been attempting to gain full member status since the 1980s; its admission, however, is now tied to Haiti (the states must be admitted together) and progress in the development of democracy in Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince. The EU, already active with development assistance to Haiti, can therefore play a role in encouraging the Dominican Republic and Haiti to jointly address migration and human rights issues within the context of the EU's development grants and technical assistance. This role is mandated by the text of the Lomé Convention itself -- member states pledge to uphold the provisions of the principal international human rights instruments, to eliminate all forms of discrimination and to uphold workers' rights, especially in the equal treatment of foreign and national workers.
A combination of pressure and support from these regional and international entities is critical to the establishment of a dialogue on refugee and immigration policy between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, the United States and other Caribbean countries affected by the Haitian Diaspora. At stake is the ability of tens of thousands of Haitian men, women and children to live lives free from persecution and critical poverty and the prospects for Haiti as a democratic state. Haiti's recovery will depend upon its ability to compete in the international marketplace. Economic recovery will therefore mean challenging its Caribbean neighbors in the quest for a fair share of international capital, technology, markets and consumer and tourism dollars. Competitive challenges generate political friction and can lead to retaliatory expulsions of expatriate Haitian populations, always a threat to Haitian political, as well as economic, stability. The way beyond this stability dilemma lies in interlocking regional agreements governing immigration, refugee, trade and economic development. And within this net of mutual interests, guarantees for protection of the human rights of Haitian populations in the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean states.
©2002 NCHR -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED -- Last updated: 08 January 2005