Authorities in the Dominican Republic have arrested thousands of Haitian migrants — and anyone who looks like they might be Haitian — and deported them to a country wracked by deadly gang violence and instability, advocates say.
The forced removals, which rights groups say have escalated this month, have drawn international criticism and calls for restraint amid reports that unaccompanied children, pregnant women and other vulnerable people are being deported.
In the Dominican Republic, the majority of the population identifies as mixed race, while the country’s neighbor Haiti has a predominantly black population. This fueled accusations that xenophobia and racism were behind the deportations, part of a broader trend of anti-Haitian discrimination in the Dominican Republic.
Some deportees have never set foot in Haiti, which is struggling with rising levels of hunger, extreme poverty and a cholera epidemic, in addition to rising violence. The country also lacks the state institutions needed to deal with the influx of arrivals, experts say.
William Charpentier, coordinator of MENAMIRD, a national roundtable on migrants and refugees in the Dominican Republic, said Dominican police and armed forces are arresting Haitians on the streets, as well as “anyone who looks like a Haitian.”
More than 20,000 people were deported in a nine-day period this month, Charpentier said, including some Dominican citizens of Haitian descent.
An official source familiar with the matter told Al Jazeera that if the current rate of deportations continues, an estimated 40,000 people will be sent from the Dominican Republic to Haiti in November. That’s on top of the 60,000 who have been deported in recent months, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
UNICEF said an estimated 1,800 unaccompanied minors had been expelled from the country this year alone, a number the Dominican Republic denies. UNICEF is working with partner organizations on the border with Haiti to receive the children.
“These deportations have led to the separation of families. People with valid documents were deported, people born here in the Dominican Republic were deported,” Charpentier told Al Jazeera.
“These are not deportations. This is persecution based on race.
History of migration
The expedited deportations come after decades of strained relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share a roughly 400-kilometer (248-mile) long border on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
About 500,000 Haitians currently live in the Dominican Republic, a country of 11 million people. They work primarily in the Dominican agricultural sector, as well as in the construction and service industries.
Many have been in the country for years, as Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic began en masse after the United States’ occupation of Haiti in 1915.
“They needed plantation workers to do the dirty work that the Dominicans didn’t want to do because the pay was low and the conditions were terrible,” said Georges Fouron, professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who specializes in immigrant identities and Haiti.
Although the Dominican economy still relies on Haitian labor, Furon explained that the long-standing fear mongering surrounding the “Haitianization” of Dominican society continues. In the past, these fears have led to violence: a 1937 massacre under the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo left thousands of Haitians dead along the border.
Now that Haiti is facing a crisis situation, “the fear is that there will be a proliferation of gangs and all these activities that are going on in Haiti,” Fouron told Al Jazeera. He predicted that “it will increase these negative sentiments” against Haitians “instead of reducing them.”
Haiti has experienced months of escalating gang violence since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021. The political process is paralyzed, most state institutions are dysfunctional, and insecurity affects almost every aspect of daily life, especially in the capital Port-au-Prince.
“No way [the deportees] can survive in Haiti. Many of them barely speak Haitian Creole. They are not familiar with the social realities of Haiti so they are in limbo and after a while what do they do? They transition back,” Furon said.
Bridget Wooding, director of OBMICA, a think tank in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo, said the Dominican Republic has historically used deportations to control migration “in the absence of a functional regulatory plan” that would have created pathways for migrants to gain legal residency.
Efforts over the past several years to legalize the immigration status of Haitians in the Dominican Republic have stalled, Wooding explained. An estimated 200,000 people who fell out of legal status were made vulnerable to deportation.
“What seems to be happening is a revolving door situation where people who are deported then re-enter the country because it’s clear that one way or another the Dominican economy needs Haitian migrants to to work,” she told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, as Dominican President Luis Abinader seeks re-election in 2024, Wooding believes Haitians are being “instrumentalized” for political gain, portrayed as the “enemy next door.”
“They are between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “On the one hand, the Dominican Republic doesn’t seem to want them. On the other hand, it is very, very difficult for them to return to their original communities because of the gang violence in Haiti, because of the economic situation and so on.
In early November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called on all countries to halt all returns to Haiti due to the “devastating humanitarian and security crisis” in the country.
Days later, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk specifically named the Dominican Republic in another call to halt the deportations. “I also call on the authorities of the Dominican Republic to increase their efforts to prevent xenophobia, discrimination and related forms of intolerance based on national, racial or ethnic origin or immigration status,” Turk said.
Former Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph criticized the Dominican government, calling the deportations “inhumane” and “discriminatory.” Meanwhile, the US issued an alert this month warning travelers they could face “increased interaction with Dominican authorities, particularly for darker-skinned US citizens and US citizens of African descent”.
The US Embassy in Santo Domingo said Americans have reported being “delayed, detained or subject to enhanced questioning at ports of entry and in other encounters with immigration officials based on the color of their skin” in recent months.
“There are reports that detainees are held in overcrowded detention centers without the opportunity to challenge their detention and without access to food or toilets, sometimes for days before being released or deported to Haiti,” it added.
But the Dominican government has dismissed the recent criticism, saying it has the right to set its border policies in accordance with the country’s constitution as well as international law. In a statement on Sunday, the foreign ministry also called the US accusations “baseless”.
The crisis in Haiti is “seriously affecting” the national security of the Dominican Republic and Haitian migrants are straining local resources, the ministry said. “The Dominican Republic has been forced to deport a large number of migrants from Haiti who no longer tolerate the situation in that country and who exceed the capacity of the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic can’t take it anymore.”
“Stop the Deportations”
Dominican President Abinader also appeared to double down last week when he vowed to increase deportations, as reported by the Associated Press and other media outlets. Abinader’s government is also working to build a wall on the Dominican border with Haiti.
The Dominican Foreign Ministry and the country’s UN mission did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment.
According to Al Jazeera’s official source, in recent months, Dominican authorities have detained women for deportation outside hospitals or taken women and children early in the morning to their homes. Some people were not given a chance to dress before being taken to a deportation point.
“Forced deportations in the last month are four times the normal level of deportations,” the source said.
Meanwhile, MENAMIRD’s Charpentier called on Dominican authorities to stop the transfers. “What we want – we demand – from the government is to stop the deportations and respect human rights,” he said.
“The way they do the deportations is by identifying black people. They can control the borders, but inside the country they cannot continue to persecute and arrest black immigrants.